Brayden Fengler / April 21, 2021
Two games in and these post COVID Canucks have already good and truly flipped the script on what was expected of them. In their first two games back this club has not only secured 4 out of 4 points, but they have done so against what is supposed to be the best team in the North Division. After six periods of play between Sunday and Tuesday evening, this Toronto Maple Leafs team could not figure out how to compete effectively against a Canucks team that was expected to be in shambles.
The first loss that the Canucks dealt the Leafs on Sunday, could’ve in many respects been shrugged off as a series of bad breaks for Toronto. Yes, the Canucks played a surprising high-intensity game on Sunday, but Toronto was also in large part the victim of some serious puck luck going Vancouver’s way. It was an amazing game for Vancouver in a lot of respects, but all and all it wasn’t a bad game for Toronto either. However on Tuesday the Canucks made it harder to ignore or shrug off their victory.
This Canucks team is obviously far from perfect, but the fact that they have performed well by any metric in their first two games back may begin to shift the narrative into a more positive light. This as far as the short-term future of this team is concerned anyways.
Captain Bo Steals the Show
After facing the press, and discussing the very real off-ice issues that the Vancouver Canucks recently faced, it was great to see Bo Horvat back on the ice doing what he does best. Bo looked very much in the zone over these last two games. When watching Horvat in both contests you would’ve been forgiven if you thought you were watching a game from early March rather than mid-April.
Bo’s Hockey sense has appeared unimpeded at every crucial juncture in these first two games back. However, this is not to say that Horvat is already at 100% himself again, and will be able to sustain this pace with the workload the team has ahead. With that said though, anyone who can pose a threat to Austin Matthews’ puck possession and faceoff win rate like Bo can, is clearly closer to playing at 100% than 0%.
Across both games, Horvat was consistently putting himself in positions where he could make a difference for his team. This was most evident from the goal that he scored off of a long breakout pass by Nils Höglander.
Nils Continues to Amaze
Höglander was one of the many confirmed victims of COVID-19 on this Canucks team. Thankfully we know that the rookie was asymptomatic to the virus, and with that being the case it seems as though he hasn’t missed a step in his time back on the ice. Höglander notched a goal and an assist in his first game back, and an additional goal in Tuesday night’s game. That second goal as seen below in the form of this beautiful slap shot he performed while rushing into the attacking zone.
Going back to the Sunday game, the assist in question of course came off of the previously mentioned Horvat goal, created by Nils’ long stretch pass. Höglander’s spatial awareness and timing doesn’t seem to be any less tuned in since his return. His assist on Bo’s goal is only one example in a long line of effective multi-line passes the rookie has made this year. We saw Höglander make a similarly amazing and accurate diagonal breakout pace in this February 15th game vs the Calgary Flames.
Höglander is continuing to prove to everyone that he is a true NHL-caliber player. He’s seen enough experience even in this shortened roller coaster of a season for everyone to know that the Canucks really have something special here. Canucks fans should now rest easy knowing that even if this two-game win streak can’t be sustained, it seems as though Höglander’s exciting plays will still be a mainstay for the rest of the season.
How Deep Is This Team? They Have No Choice but to Find Out.
One upside from an otherwise month of downsides is that a lot more depth pieces are getting a chance to shine on this Canucks team. For example, seeing Jalen Chatfield back on the roster was not something I and many others who saw his games early on in the season, really wanted to see. However, in Sunday’s game especially, he was able to put himself in smart positions that actually allowed him to impact the game in a positive way for his team.
The highlight of Chatfield’s positional play on Sunday can be seen in the series of events leading up to the goal shown below. Chatfield’s positioning and ability to get the puck on net, ultimately led to a goal for his team.
In Tuesday’s game, we also saw the return of Olli Juolevi to the ice for the Vancouver Canucks. Juolevi skated for a total of 14:50 and worked for 2 shots on net. He didn’t blow the doors off in his return to NHL action, but on a handful of shifts, Juolevi was able to produce offensive chances for his team. Juolevi remained for the most part in good position during defensive moments of his ice time on Tuesday as well.
Juolevi and Chatfield still may not end up being a part of this Canucks team’s future long term. But if any depth piece like these two players, can show consistently decent performances, or better yet, play above expectation, then that only puts the organization in a better position on the whole.
The Games Ahead
There is no beating around the bush, the Canucks’ schedule is brutal. It’s unfair for the players and the only people it helps more than hurts, is the Canucks’ ownership group and the NHL, who are now still able to cash cheques that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
That is the cynical reality off the ice, and despite the two recent Canucks wins, the reality on the ice is also pretty grim for the team as well. In the next seven days, the Canucks have a schedule that faces them off against the Ottawa Senators four times. Then in the seven days immediately following their last game day against Ottawa, the Canucks will finish the back-to-back with a game against the Leafs. This followed with a face-off against the Leafs again on the next Saturday and then a series of matchups against the Oilers both that Monday and Tuesday.
The Canucks’ schedule then only compounds from there, with back-to-back days of action being a commonplace feature in their weeks. If the CBA allowed for more than just two game days in a row then you better believe the NHL would’ve made the Canucks season look like an advent calendar of hockey games.
Everyone in and around this team should only be hoping for the best going forward, not the best record on the ice, but simply just the best that they can do. If the Canucks can continue to ice even a somewhat competitive roster on most nights, keep their recovering players healthy, and not overwork them, then this next month will be a success. As big of a success as it can be at this point anyways.