DENVER — When Luke Schenn rescued his National Hockey League career four years ago during his first appearance with the Vancouver Canucks, Elias Pettersson was just a rookie — a lean, dynamo of puck skills scoring his way towards the Calder Trophy.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Schenn said Wednesday, “but I remember some of the games Petey was playing, and just the way he played, and with his style and his ability, for whatever reason, I just thought: Pavel Datsyuk. That’s what I thought. Obviously, he’s growing into a much better 200-foot player.”
After telling Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau he was ready for more defensively, Pettersson was assigned Wednesday night to play head-to-head against Colorado Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon and the uber-talented players who surround him. That matchup was a draw for the Canucks, which is a big reason why the team was able to beat the Avalanche 4-3.
One game after blowing another two-goal lead in the third period in a 5-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canucks came back in the final 20 minutes — at altitude — with goals by Ethan Bear and former Avalanche forward Sheldon Dries to win for the third time in four games.
They are confounding. No lead for the Canucks feels safe, yet few games are unwinnable. Twenty games into the National Hockey League season, the Canucks are a riot to watch because they are unpredictable.
But the evolution of Pettersson into a two-way role that Boudreau may try to expand, could make the team a lot more dependable.
Pettersson has some growing to do before he is Pavel Datsyuk, the former Detroit Red Wing great who won three Selke Trophies and was a finalist for three others. But Pettersson is already the best two-way centre on the team.
He asked Boudreau before the season for an expanded role and has reminded his coach several times since then that he feels ready.
“I mentioned that I’m ready if he wants to play me there but obviously the coaches make those decisions,” Pettersson said after the Canucks’ most impressive win so far. “Tonight, I got the chance and just tried to make the most of it.
“I love it. I want to play against the best line, the best players.”
Lining up with his usual wingers, Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko, Pettersson played from the start against MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen. The Canuck trio scored just 21 seconds into the opening shift when Pettersson bounced a pass into the slot to Mikheyev, who lifted a tumbling shot up and over Colorado goalie Pavel Francouz.
Rantanen tied it with his skate, directing Devon Toews centring pass past Canuck goalie Spencer Martin at 11:27. But that would be the only even-strength goal Vancouver surrendered.
Rantanen and Makar scored goals on the Avalanche’s NHL-leading power play, the second one at five-on-three putting Colorado ahead 3-2 at 15:59 of the second period.
But Dries, who left the Avalanche to sign a free-agent contract with the Canucks before last season, tied it 3-3 at 5:07 of the third period when he flipped a rebound over Francouz’s pad after smartly lifting Toews’ stick to allow the puck to reach the net.
And Bear blasted a high slapshot through Mikheyev’s screen as the teams skated four against four at the 12-minute mark.
“I cherished my time here,” Dries said. “But it was just a different opportunity and I wanted to come to Vancouver. It’s always nice to score against your old team. This was gut-check time for us.”
The Canucks defended their one-goal lead over the final eight minutes, Martin finishing with 33 saves and Pettersson with even more confidence that he can check the NHL’s best players.
“You know, I thought he was OK,” Boudreau said of matching Pettersson against MacKinnon. “And I say that (because) it’s not only MacKinnon. Makar and Toews is always on with them every time. I think Petey wanted the challenge and I think he did a really good job.”
The Canucks visit Vegas to play the Golden Knights on Saturday, then finish their three-game trip against the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.
Who knows what to expect?
“I do know one thing,” Boudreau said. “They go into every game and they’re going to try real hard, and they’re thinking they’re going to win. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. And when we’ve had the start that we’ve had, a lot of times we hold the sticks too tight when we do get the lead. It needs a couple of these (wins). If we can ever get fortunate on the weekend, I think that confidence builds a snowball and all of a sudden you start going pretty well.”
“You take one on the chin and blow a third-period lead, and guys show up to the rink the next day and want to improve and want to get better,” Schenn said. “We can’t fix anything from the past, but we do have 62 games left. The one thing is, we haven’t closed out as many games as we’d like, but we’re in every game. And every game feels winnable, which is a good thing.”