The Canucks were in playoff form Thursday. How do I know? Because this game bore an eerie resemblance to a playoff game from last June. Let me break it down for you:
After two tough losses on the road, the Canucks came home looking to bounce back. The game was tight, with very little room for error, and the NHL’s top two teams entered the third period locked in a 0-0 tie. The contest appeared headed for overtime until, midway through the third, one of the Canucks’ point men put a shot just wide of the net. It popped off the boards and right onto the stick of a French winger that nobody likes, and he was able to jam the puck inside the post just before the goaltender could get across. Immediately after doing so, he scrambled to the boards to celebrate the game-winner with his linemates while Rogers Arena went nuts.
Yeah. Tonight’s game was effectively a shot-for-shot remake of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. I remember it clear as day, because I, like many of you, watched that game. And then I watched this game.
Canucks 2 – 0 Blues
People are going to filter the last two games through the prism of the Cody Hodgson trade, and considering the Canucks only managed one goal in each (Chris Higgins’s empty-netter notwithstanding), I expect to hear several suggestions over the next few days that swapping Hodgson for Sammy Pahlsson has signaled the death of team scoring. But that’s silly. Hodgson’s absence from the team dynamic has nothing to do with Vancouver’s absence of offense versus Phoenix and St. Louis. Rather, it has everything to do with the presence of Phoenix and St. Louis, two teams that murder offence in cold blood. These are teams that have turned Mike Smith and Brian Elliott into Vezina candidates. Their smothering defensive systems are like auto-tune for mediocre goaltenders.
It’s far too early to know what kind of player Marc-Andre Gragnani is going to be, but man alive, does he rack up the mileage in the offensive zone for a third-pairing guy. Keith Ballard watched this game from home, and every time Gragnani got involved in the offense, he loudly remarked, Man, he is gonna get so benched for that. But Gragnani never did — he spent the entire game roaming without consequence. On one shift, he sprinted back into the play with a string of freshly-bought 50/50 tickets.
Gragnani got his name on the scoresheet early, registering one of the Canucks’ first two shots and taking the team’s first penalty, an overzealous crosscheck along the end boards on Andy McDonald. Not sure anyone else noticed this, but my favourite thing about this sequence came on the replay, when the cameras caught the woman sitting right at the boards putting her hands on her face in horror, ala The Scream. Seriously, lady, if you can’t handle seeing dudes getting boarded up-close, maybe sit a little higher up.
Roberto Luongo picked up only his third shutout of the season, making 29 saves in the win. He was as good as he had to be, although he looked a little shaky on a few rebounds and particularly bad on a shot in the second that inexplicably knocked his stick out of his hands. Look, I understand losing your stick when someone skates through it or it gets tangled up with a defender or something, but when your goaltending equipment can be knocked out of your hands by a shot, why even bother having it in the first place? That’s like putting Jurassic Park‘s backup generator in a place velociraptors can get to if the electric fence craps out — it sort of negates the purpose, no?
My favourite fourth line moment: a shift in the second period when the trio of Zack Kassian, Manny Malhotra, and Maxim Lapierre worked the puck to the goal then started jamming away at it. Malhotra got in a stab just after the whistle, which drew all five Blues, but Kassian jumped in front of his centre, backed him into the boards, and held his arms out like he was protesting an old Redwood being cut down. I half-expected him to chain himself to Malhotra. It was impressive, as was the fact that everyone backed off.
My second favourite fourth line moment is a tie between every other moment they were on the ice. Kassian has energized the heck out of that unit — Maxim Lapierre especially. Lapierre was throwing hits like Shaun and Ed all night, registering a whopping 10 in the game. Kassian, meanwhile, had 4 hits of his own. But the line didn’t just lead the team in physicality; they led it in shots as well. The trio generated 6 shots, the most of any of the Canucks’ four lines, with Kassian leading the way with a game-high 4. If he keeps this up, it won’t be long before people are demanding he get more icetime than Ryan Kesler and complaining that Alain Vigneault is mismanaging him — sure signs the fans have embraced him.
Alain Vigneault really has the giggles these days. Think he’s recently discovered one of the major benefits of living in Vancouver, and by that I mean the Vancouver Lego Club?
Mason Raymond is always a major factor against teams like the Blues and Coyotes because he backs off neutral zone pressure with his speed. He did plenty of that tonight, and I remain a Raymond apologist. That said, his strength is possession through the neutral zone and into the opponents’ end, and he had his pocket picked two or three times tonight coming across the red line. For Raymond, that’s completely unacceptable. He needs to protect the puck better. Might I suggest falling on it? That he can do.
Granted, the Blues play some amazing defence in the neutral zone, especially David Backes. He caught Alex Burrows with a massive open-ice bodycheck in the first. I don’t think he likes Alex Burrows.
In the second period, one of the officials tossed a towel onto the St. Louis Blues’ bench. It landed on Jaro Halak’s lap, and the look of annoyance on his face was absolutely priceless. He was like, Jaroslav is not towel man, idiot. I like that he just kind of sat there stewing until someone took it off his lap, which is about how I react to other people’s babies.
Burrows had the last laugh, however, scoring the game-winning goal with Backes on the ice. Not that the Blues’ captain could have done anything differently, mind you: the goal came after both Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis got a little lucky, with Bieksa’s fanned shot going right to Hamhuis and Hamhuis’s missed shot jumping right off the boards to Burrows. But Burrows made his own luck too. The way he chipped the puck up over Elliott rather than just trying to jam it in was sweeter and headier than lilac wine.
Alain Vigneault’s zone deployment is usually quite rigid, but he really spread out the starts tonight. Everyone had defensive zone faceoffs, from Henrik Sedin to Chris Higgins. And the fourth line started 3 shifts in the offensive zone to boot. Granted, the way the 4th line was playing tonight, they earned some offensive icetime, but still, it will be interesting to see what the new line combinations mean for AV’s meticulous approach to zone starts.
And finally, Chris “Kiss Huggins” Higgins scored the empty-netter to seal the game. He’s still reintegrating himself into the world of the living and he clearly doesn’t trust himself about human flesh, a fact that’s most noticeable at the end of the clip when Henrik Sedin tries to give him a facewash and he grumpily bats the captain’s hand away, likely afraid he’ll start snacking on it.
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