Like a whiff of pre-game smelling salts, nothing clears the cobwebs after a weeklong break better than playing for something and playing the Western Conference leaders and defending Stanley Cup champions.
Amid the buzz of the Vancouver Canucks atop the Pacific Division and riding an eight-game win streak on home ice — the longest active run in the NHL — there was more anticipation than angst in facing the St. Louis Blues on Monday at Rogers Arena.
“I wanted the break to be over a couple of days ago — I’m ready to go,” winger J.T. Miller said following the morning skate and before striking for two goals.
It made sense.
The Blues would force the Canucks to play a structured, sound and safe game. And with a shootout win and overtime loss to show for two previous meetings with the Blues, there was reason for optimism that the club could stretch the streak to nine games.
The club record is 11 straight home-ice triumphs from Feb. 3 to March 19, 2009.
Maybe Travis Green put it best when he summed up the gritty effort.
“Great game. Big win. Resilient. We played a good team that’s heavy, competes hard and we hung in there and won a game,” said the Canucks coach. “These are good games for us. To win them, you have to do certain things and we did it tonight.”
Here’s what we learned as the Canucks put in a gutsy effort and iced a 3-1 victory with an empty-net goal by Bo Horvat:
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See Jake hustle. See Jake pass. See Jake shoot.
Jake Virtanen unleashed a hot wrist shot at speed on his first shift. He then hit the crossbar with a long-range wrister through a mosh pit and then did the spade work along the wall to start the scoring sequence on the first of two second-period goals by Miller.
If that wasn’t enough, Virtanen then kept pushing the pace with Elias Pettersson and Miller and made a smart cross-ice feed to Miller for the one-timer and a 2-1 lead. And he was also stoned down low on a right-pad save by Jake Allen before drawing a penalty.
That’s five points in the last three games for Virtanen, who credits his new linemates.
“They open up the ice a lot and when you play with them a couple of games, the confidence skyrockets,” said Virtanen. “We have some good chemistry. You get an opportunity like that, you want to make the most of it. They’re great players who anybody would want to play with.”
You could argue Virtanen was recently aligned with Pettersson and Miller to spread out the scoring. Or, you could argue that the winger is there on merit and Brock Boeser is with Adam Gaudette and Antoine Roussel to play a more responsible game in transition.
Regardless of your take, Virtanen is taking advantage of the promotion. There’s the more direct route to the net, better finish, saucer passes and 19 shots in the last six games and even a season-high 18:06 of ice time on Jan.14 in Winnipeg.
That’s confidence in the player, the trust from the coach and rave reviews from Miller.
“He’s a big dude who can skate and shoot and is a really effective player when he’s keeping it going forward,” said Miller, who’s now up to 19 goals and 48 points, surpassing the 47 points he had in Tampa. “He’s so effective when he’s getting to the net. When we buy into that as a line, we’re really effective.”
Said Green of Virtanen: “Confidence. Assertiveness. Moving his feet. He’s playing really well.”
As for his winning goal, Miller didn’t make clean contact but got the right result.
“I actually thought my stick was broken, so I didn’t want to push too hard and I got lucky,” he said.
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Demko delivers the goods
Whether it was a hunch, gut feeling or going to the form chart, giving Thatcher Demko the cage was a good call.
The Canucks could have easily deferred to Jacob Markstrom — especially with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday — but they sided with some history and it resulted in a solid 36-save outing.
Demko backstopped the Canucks to a 4-3 shootout win in St. Louis on Oct. 17 with a 34-save effort and had to be sharp Monday. Power play saves off Brayden Schenn and Robert Thomas and then Jaden Schwartz in tight in the third period kept it 2-1.
“I just saw the play developing that way and threw my left leg over and I got a piece of it and just tried to slide my second leg through to make sure,” said Demko.
And there was ample early evidence that his game was in check.
There was stopping a Schenn barge to the net in the second period and recovering to stop him again from a sharp angle later in the same frame.
“A big win,” added Demko. “We’ve been playing really good hockey and sometimes teams can get a little complacent during the break, so it was good to get back in it. I’m really proud of the effort. We handled it really well and the amount of blocks we had (23) were crazy. Those are man blocks when guys are winding up with slapshots and one-timers and huge kudos to those guys.”
So maybe a new statistical column showing man blocks? Maybe not.
“Some are floaters and some are coming in pretty hot,” laughed Demko.
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Bending but not really breaking
Shutdown roles are never easy.
You draw Schenn centring Schwartz and (insert any winger) and it’s going to be a long night one way or the other. You either limit Schenn and Schwartz to a few chances or you allow them to pile up the points.
The trio of Jay Beagle between Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter often drew the assignment and kept the duo that has combined for 33 goals off the scoresheet. It wasn’t easy. Schenn had five shots and was a buzzsaw down low and Schwartz had five and was always lingering as the opportunist.
Beagle also forechecked to such a degree that he forced David Perron to take a second-period hooking minor. Beagle, Motte and Sutter also worked the penalty kill and kept the league’s fourth-ranked power play from scoring on three chances.
“We kind of knew that,” said Beagle. “They have depth throughout and when you get a matchup like that, you’ve got to make sure to do a job. They’re hard to play against. I played against Schenn my whole career and thrive off that.”
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Such small margins for errors
When you play a good club, you better not make bad decisions.
It could be attributed to some rust after the break, but Quinn Hughes made a rare defensive gaffe to give the Blues the early edge. He was stripped of the puck by Perron, who circled the net and avoided Chris Tanev before finding Zach Sanford open at the back door with Hughes arriving late.
“That’s a good example and this is a good learning curve for him,” Green said of the often-adventurous Hughes. “He was a little bit cute tonight early and had a little bit too much backhand sauce (passes) going early. We usually let him play his way out of it and definitely talked to him a bit after the first five or 10 minutes.
“But we’re going to keep playing him. He’s a good player and he’s got to learn in these types of games what you can and can’t do. That’s a big, heavy team that’s won a Stanley Cup.”
The Canucks also took a first-period bench minor for too many men on the ice when Hughes had yet to vacate the ice when Alex Edler arrived and played the puck. Miller also tried to go up the gut with an outlet pass and it went off Schenn and forced Demko to quickly react.
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