Really, was there any doubt?
Bad teams find ways to lose and good teams find ways to win and the Vancouver Canucks have proved both axioms this season. Two months ago, they were with the Chicago Blackhawks in the “bad” category.
But the Canucks’ transformation was evident Sunday when they scuffled for a while through the first two periods, but did not self-destruct. And when the Blackhawks presented them an opportunity to win in the third period, the Canucks seized it by scoring three times in a 4-2 victory that was Vancouver’s ninth in 11 games.
Not only have the Canucks not played for the Connor Bedard sweepstakes since Rick Tocchet took over as coach two months ago, soon they may not even have a mathematical chance at the generational draft prospect from Vancouver.
With their third straight victory, and second on the road in less than 24 hours, the Canucks moved within two points of the 22nd-place Ottawa Senators and three points back of the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres. Any team 21st or higher in the standings can’t pick first overall even if it wins the draft lottery and moves up the maximum 10 places in the selection order.
At 34-34-5, the Canucks are also .500 again for the first time since Dec. 31, a break-even point that was unthinkable just a month ago. Vancouver is 13-4-1 since Feb. 15.
The most impressive thing about them Sunday is that when Elias Pettersson scored twice in 63 seconds halfway through the third period to put the Canucks up 3-1, they looked as confident and comfortable with the lead as they had in Dallas on Saturday when they beat a much tougher opponent.
THE JOSHUA THREE
For the third straight game, depth power forward Dakota Joshua made a difference for the Canucks. But on Sunday, it had nothing to do with him scoring.
Joshua caused a turnover midway through the third period when he flattened Blackhawk speedbug Lukas Reichel in open ice. Joshua was immediately challenged by MacKenzie Entwistle. But seeing his teammates counter-attack through the neutral zone, Joshua refused to fight.
Maybe Entwistle wasn’t the only distracted Blackhawk because Chicago defended the three-on-three rush by turning it into a two-on-one before Pettersson finished from a sharp angle from Ethan Bear’s pass to break a 1-1 tie at 12:06.
At 13:09, 13 seconds after a stupid high-sticking penalty by Blackhawk Andreas Athanasiou, Pettersson tapped in the remains of a Brock Boeser-Andrei Kuzmenko double deflection for a power-play goal that made it 3-1.
Joshua’s hit (and subsequent awareness and discipline) was the pivotal point of the game. His shorthanded goal in Saturday’s 3-1 win in Dallas tied that game, and in Thursday’s 7-2 home win against the San Jose Sharks the winger had a goal, assist and three hits.
A free-agent signing last summer from the St. Louis Blues, Joshua, 26, said Thursday that this is the best he has felt in his four pro seasons.
“Yeah, probably, I would say so,” the winger from Ohio State University and Dearborn, Mich., told us. “Just got to be more consistent and do it every night.”
He has done it a lot of nights lately. Averaging 11:32 of ice time, Joshua has 11 goals and 20 points in 70 games, leads Canuck forwards with 190 hits and has been an important contributor in the turn-around in Vancouver penalty killing.
Another sign of what may now be described as Pettersson’s greatness is that he wasn’t anywhere near his best in either weekend game. And yet among the Canucks’ seven goals, Pettersson scored two and set up another and still was a key factor in the weekend sweep.
In 71 games, Pettersson has 35 goals and 93 points, tied for seventh in NHL scoring. If he extends his points streak to 13 games in the Canucks’ road trip finale Tuesday in St. Louis, Pettersson will equal the team’s longest points streak in 13 years and be just two games shy of the franchise record co-held by Todd Bertuzzi (2001-02) and Petr Nedved (1992-93).
With nine games left, the 24-year-old is on pace to be the first Canuck to eclipse 100 points since Daniel Sedin won the NHL scoring title with 104 in 2011.
The Canuck power play snapped a mini-slump with Pettersson’s winning goal. Interestingly, it came with four forwards back on the ice with defenceman Quinn Hughes after Tocchet and power-play coach Jason King abandoned — at least for now — a two-game experiment using newcomer Filip Hronek in an old-school, two-defenceman setup.
Hughes’ point shot preceded Pettersson’s gimme but did not earn him an assist as both Boeser and Kuzmenko touched it on its way to Chicago goalie Petr Mrazek. But Hughes did get an assist on Phil DiGiuseppe’s bankshot goal that tied it 1-1 at 19:43 of the second period, which allowed him to set a new record for points by a Canucks defenceman with five goals and 64 assists in 69 games.
After Hughes broke decades-old records for points (68) and assists (60) by a Canucks defenceman last season, former coach Bruce Boudreau predicted the 23-year-old would just keep upping the standard each year.
Nearly two weeks since joining the Canucks after finishing his final season at Northeastern University, winger Aidan McDonough finally made his NHL debut. Tocchet started him on a line between centres Pettersson and J.T. Miller — team leaders and the Canucks’ best forwards.
With his parents from Boston leading the family cheering section at the United Center, Mcdonough won the opening faceoff before playing most of the game on a line with Sheldon Dries and Conor Garland. McDonough logged 10:03 of ice time, contributed four shot attempts and two hits, and had scoring chances in the second and third period.
His best friend from childhood, defenceman Jack Rathbone, was recalled by the Canucks from the American Hockey League just before the road trip.
“I took a faceoff and I haven’t taken a faceoff in, like, six years,” McDonough, 23, smiled in a post-game interview with Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy. “After that, it was kind of just hockey after the first shift.
“It was awesome. It was amazing. Just to have so many friends and family here. . . and to share it with my best friend since first grade, Jack Rathbone, and then to get the two points, it was amazing — everything you could dream of.”
Wearing Jim Sandlak’s old No. 25, the six-foot-three McDonough looked a lot like “House,” the strapping Sandlak’s nickname when he played for eight seasons in the 1980s and ’90s.
A seventh-round draft pick, McDonough isn’t quite too big to fail, but he’s important to a Canucks prospect pool that lacks depth and, especially, big bodies that can play. After 20 goals and 38 points in 34 games in his senior season as Northeastern’s captain, McDonough gives the Canucks’ player-development staff a lot to work with.