With just three wins for the Canucks in their previous eight games, while the Flames were 6-2-1 in their last nine as they try to climb back from a dreadful start, Vancouver played a solid, effective road game for an important win that nudged the team 10 points clear of Calgary in the National Hockey League’s Pacific Division.
The win was also a positive start for new defenceman Nikita Zadorov, who changed teams on Thursday in a trade to the Canucks from the Flames, and logged 17:37 of ice time against his former team in his Vancouver debut. Zadorov was even credited for a while for a game-winning goal into the empty net with 1:20 remaining, but his bouncing clearance-goal was later awarded to Elias Pettersson.
Zadorov’s grounder that ticked Pettersson made it 4-2 but became the deciding goal when the Flames’ power play scored six-against-four with 54 seconds remaining. Elias Lindholm banked in an end-boards rebound after Canuck defenceman Noah Juulsen had cleared the puck over the glass.
But there was no miracle comeback for Calgary, which trailed 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 and was held to 22 shots, including just 15 at even strength, at the Saddledome.
Quinn Hughes, with his career-high ninth goal (in Game 25), Sam Lafferty and Ilya Mikheyev also scored for Vancouver as coach Rick Tocchet altered his forward lines as well as his second pairing on defence.
The Canucks, 16-8-1, play their next five games at home, starting Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils at Rogers Arena.
THE MARK OF Z
The Canucks now have the tallest defence pairing in the NHL as blue-line coach Adam Foote partnered the six-foot-six Zadorov with six-foot-eight Tyler Myers. The defencemen were teammates for parts of two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres at the start of Zadorov’s career a decade ago.
Myers was traded to Winnipeg partway through the 2014-15 campaign, while Zadorov was sent to Colorado that summer as part of the Ryan O’Reilly blockbuster.
“We were joking,” Zadorov said after the morning skate on Saturday. “Me and Mysie were a D pair 11 years ago, 10 years ago, in Buffalo. We’re running it back right now. He’s a good player.”
The pairing had a solid, unspectacular game — and the Canucks would love another 57 of those. Zadorov and Myers logged 11:22 of five-on-five ice time together, controlling 61 per cent of shot-attempts and posting expected-goals of 79 per cent on the strength of a 7-1 advantage in scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.
“Weird, fun, lots of mixed emotions, you know?” Zadorov told reporters in Calgary. “When the game started you start focusing on the game, make some plays, and start enjoying it.
“(The win) feels great. It’s an important win for this team. They lost a couple. We played a really good hockey team on the road and we stuck with it. All the boys played their asses off today. It’s definitely a nice starting point of my career with the Canucks.”
It was revealing that Zadorov and Myers were on the ice late in the game, defending the lead. Zadorov’s 17:37 of ice time was about four minutes fewer than Myers. Zadorov was plus-two.
Despite asking for a trade — and getting booed on Saturday — the Russian said he will fondly remember his 2 ½ years in Calgary and made lifetime friends on the Flames.
“They were chirping me,” he said of his ex-teammates. “It’s fun. It’s between us. I love them. They love me. It’s a mutual relationship. I had fun playing against them today.
“Those past couple days were pretty emotional. I’m glad now it’s a new page.”
Asked Saturday morning what changed from the end of last season, when he said he could envision finishing his career in Calgary, Zadorov explained: “I haven’t got a contract offer.”
He is on an expiring contract and the Canucks, who have scuffled since six-foot-five defenceman Carson Soucy was injured three weeks ago, were elated to add Zadorov for the modest cost of third- and fifth-round draft picks and the absorption of his full cap hit of $3.75-million.
“Obviously excited to have him,” Canucks captain Quinn Hughes said. “Kind of a rare player that we haven’t really had here and are fortunate to have. I’m surprised by the boos, but he said that could be a possibility. I thought he played great. It’s not easy playing his first game here. I’m sure he had lots of emotions and whatnot. I’m sure he’s excited to get back to Vancouver.”
A MATTER OF TIMES
Having an experienced, reliable player to eat minutes in the bottom half of the defence had the desired effect on Saturday, when ice times for Hughes (22:40) and Filip Hronek (21:32) were among their lower TOIs this season. And the playing time of the least-used Canuck defenceman, Juulsen (17:05), was one of the highest.
Tocchet has said several times he was worried about over-playing Hughes and Hronek and needed to find more minutes from his fifth and sixth defencemen. As the likely No. 5, Zadorov gives the head coach that option.
FORWARD LINE CHANGES
After a two-game reprieve with Tuesday’s trade of Anthony Beauvillier to Chicago (for the cap space that allowed general manager Patrik Allvin to acquire Zadorov) winger Phil Di Giuseppe was a healthy scratch for the first time this season. The speedy, relentless winger had been a staple until last week on the Canucks’ key matchup line, centred by J.T. Miller.
His scratch allowed minor-league callup Linus Karlsson to get his second NHL game.
After Thursday’s disappointing 4-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Tocchet remade his lines on Saturday, playing Andrei Kuzmenko with Miller and Brock Boeser, which allowed Lafferty to skate with Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev.
Karlsson was on the all-Swedish fourth line with Nils Aman and Nils Hoglander.
Rick Tocchet: “I think we grinded pretty well. We hung in there. At the end we lost a little bit of composure, a little bit, but I thought for the most part the resiliency…it was a nice bounce-back game after the Vegas game so you’ve got to give the guys a lot of credit.”