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I Watched This Game: Canucks' cathartic comeback win over Bruins

J.T. Miller came through in the clutch, assisting on all three Canucks goals in the come-from-behind win.
The Vancouver Canucks pulled off a thrilling comeback win over the Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

Saturday night’s game against the Boston Bruins was shaping up to be a familiar script for the Vancouver Canucks. 

The game had all the makings of a moral victory for the Canucks, which means it wasn’t going to be an actual, points-in-the-standings victory. The team would be able to talk about how they felt good about how their performance and how they stuck with it and how they played a full 60 minutes, even though they had just lost their fifth straight game.

But in the final ten minutes of regulation, the Canucks flipped the script like Harold Pinter writing Betrayal.  

Down 2-0 to the Bruins in the third period, the Canucks staged a thrilling comeback in front of a roaring Rogers Arena, then completed the comeback in overtime on, in a twist of dramatic irony, the power play — just their second power play goal in their last ten games. Five curtain calls, roses thrown on the stage, glowing reviews in the New York Times. 

Here’s the thing: all the platitudes about a good 60 minutes were essentially true about this game. This looked like an evenly-matched game between two of the top teams in the NHL and the Canucks legitimately outplayed the Bruins for long stretches.

“I think it's a good — I don't want to say wake-up call, but just understanding how we need to play to be good,” said Elias Pettersson. “And I think that may have slipped a little bit on the road trip.”

The key for the Canucks was staying even-keeled even as the game threatened to slip away in the second period. 

“Maybe the last three, four games we've had, the bench would have been a little different, antsy, a little bit of frustration — slamming sticks and stuff,” said Rick Tocchet. “I didn't see that tonight. There wasn't frustration, even though we were down two-nothing.”

The Canucks arguably had reasons to get frustrated. Jeremy Swayman looked unbeatable in the Bruins’ net, even as the Canucks started piling up the shots on goal. The Bruins’ defence locked down the middle of the ice, making it hard to create grade-A scoring chances.  Also, the penalties were heavily weighted towards the Bruins, which might cause some Canucks fans to cry foul, but the truth is the Bruins were playing a very disciplined game — very out of character, really. 

“You know, don't get mad at the refs — those are the little things that you can't do in playoff time, right?” said Tocchet, getting specific about what he meant when he said “frustration” earlier.

Instead of getting frustrated, the Canucks persevered and pulled out a win — a very fulfilling, cathartic win. That’s not to say there wasn’t still room for a few moral victory platitudes and, perhaps, a response to Tocchet’s previous comment on the Canucks’ lack of “B-A-L-L-S.”  

“Whether we won or lost tonight, I thought that we just played an awesome 60 minutes and sometimes they're gonna go in and sometimes they're not,” said J.T. Miller. “I just thought it was a hell of a hockey game. Showed a lot of balls for our group today.”

And Miller wasn’t just talking about the return of the Green Men. I definitely saw a little too much balls when I watched this game.

  • Nikita Zadorov had one hell of a game against the Bruins. He set the tone physically with a big hit on David Pastrnak early in the game but made an even bigger impact with how he skated the puck up ice. He seemed to identify a gap in the Bruins’ forecheck and exploited it again and again, flying up the ice with deceptive speed to repeatedly gain the offensive zone with possession. 

  • “Maybe I was feeling good today, I don't know,” said Zadorov. “I think that's a big part of my game. I mean, I was doing it in the past, maybe I kind of got away from it a little bit — you know, different system — but today, it was just good timing, so when I can carry it, I can beat the forechecker easily and then just tried to carry it through three guys. I mean, I'm a good player when I move my feet, so I'm gonna keep going.”

  • Zadorov and his defence partner, Noah Juulsen, also kept breaking up the Bruins’ zone entries and cycle with their physical play, with Juulsen logging six hits. Combine that physicality with Zadorov’s wheels and puck possession was tilted more than the camera in a Sam Raimi film when they were on the ice. Shot attempts were 19-to-5 for the Canucks with Zadorov on the ice at 5-on-5 and shots on goal were 10-to-2.
  • The Canucks deserve a ton of credit for neutralizing the Bruins’ most dangerous players, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. Miller’s line was matched up against the Marchand line and completely throttled them, as the Bruins didn’t get a single shot on goal when they were on the ice against each other. Meanwhile, the line of Arshdeep Bains, Elias Lindholm, and Conor Garland did a bang-up job against the Pastrnak line, limiting the Bruins to just one shot on goal when they were matched up.

  • “I feel like — no disrespect to them — I don't think we had to defend much,” said Miller. “We made them use all their energy in their own end and that team makes their centres do a lot of work, so when you do that, it's hard to play offense when you're tired.”

  • The trouble for the Canucks in the first two periods was that they were getting shots on net but mostly from distance and without much traffic in front. That made it a cinch for Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman to see the puck. As much as Swayman had a good game, the Canucks made his life far too easy. 

  • “If I had one thing that we've got to get better at, is we have to get more level traffic. It's not just having two guys in front,” said Tocchet, wanting to have more layers between the shooter and the goaltender. “It seems like sometimes we get a shot and we have one guy in front but the two guys are in the high slot. And we've got to figure a way to get another guy going downhill.”

  • Brock Boeser scored two goals in this game to bookend the Canucks’ comeback but he was unlucky not to open the scoring in the second period. Boeser peeled out of the corner, took a pass from J.T. Miller, and looked off like he was going to pass the puck before suddenly firing a shot short side on Jeremy Swayman. The shot beat the blocker but not the shaft of Swayman’s stick. That shaft was one bad mother — shut your mouth.  
  • Less than a minute after Boeser was stopped, the Bruins made it 1-0 off a neutral zone faceoff. Filip Hronek swiped at the puck instead of engaging physically and the puck bounced to Justin Brazeau. Suddenly flat-footed, Hronek couldn’t keep pace with Jesper Boqvist as he drove to the net, took Brazeau’s pass, and deked around an outstretched Thatcher Demko. 

  • Danton Heinen gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead with some hard work in the paint like Hakeem Olajuwon. Trent Frederic tried a wraparound that Demko stopped by Danton Heinen got his stick on the puck while being wrapped up by Ian Cole and tucked it just inside the post before running into Demko. The puck was in before Heinen made contact and he was being pushed into Demko by Cole, so there was no challenge from the Canucks.

  • The Canucks’ lack of discipline with their sticks was still an issue in this game. Tyler Myers took an undisciplined slash at Charlie McAvoy in the final minute of the first period after a clean McAvoy hit on Sam Lafferty, and then Ian Cole got his stick into the legs of Brad Marchand in the first minute of the third period for a tripping penalty. If not for the penalty kill posting a clean sheet, this game could have gotten away from the Canucks.

  • A set play off an offensive zone faceoff finally got the Canucks on the board midway through the third period. As Miller won the faceoff, Boeser slipped between two Bruins into the slot. That forced defenceman Derek Forbort, who was lined up down low for the faceoff, to travel a long way to get to him. Zadorov’s pass was faster than Forbort and Boeser took the pass from the backhand to the forehand, then made like Barbados Slim and went just under the bar.

  • “That was Millsy's set play, he called it right before the faceoff because their D lined up behind the circle,” said Zadorov. “So, it takes some time to get back to Brock and he would be open for a few seconds. Yeah, he drew up that play.” 

  • “I don’t want to tell you exactly what I saw, we might use it again,” said Miller. “It’s just nice to see the execution. In Colorado, we tried that a few times but they broke it up. It was just a hell of a play by Z; Z was unbelievable in the third period.”

  • The Canucks poured on the pressure in the third period like mirror glaze on a cake. Shot attempts were 35-to-9 for the Canucks in the third, while shots on goal were 15-to-4. The energy in the building was amped up but also nervous as the minutes ticked away. Were the Canucks really going to lose in front of the Green Men in their much-ballyhooed return?

  • Hronek finally tied the game with what the Canucks had been unable to get through the first two periods: a point shot with traffic in front. With Demko pulled for the extra attacker, the Canucks spread out the ice in the offensive zone to create a shot for Hronek off a Miller pass, with Boeser screening Swayman in front. Swayman, whose lack of x-ray vision is a clear deficiency in his game, couldn’t see the puck through Boeser as it sailed over his elbow.

  • “Millsy willed the game, his third period was incredible,” said Tocchet. 

  • While the Canucks got just one power play in regulation, they got another when it mattered most: in overtime, as a Pettersson pass to Boeser caught the Bruins with too many players on the ice. They made the power play look incredibly easy: Hughes moved the puck to Miller, who skated downhill on the left-hand side and seemingly loaded up a shot before ripping a backdoor pass to Boeser for the tap-in goal. 

  • “Four-on-three is easier than five-on-four, just because they're missing that one guy,” said Miller. “I can get good depth on that side and we're just trying to pick on the weak-side defenceman. The beauty is, there's not a lot of four-on-three, so the pre-scout is not really watching what teams are doing four-on-three. We've scored on that play before; I'm sure people are going to know that now.”

  • It really felt like the Canucks needed this win, not just because it showed a response from their four-game losing streak or their longer run of mediocre play that started with a 4-0 loss to these same Bruins. Specifically, it felt like the Canucks need to win like this: a come-from-behind, gutsy win against one of the best teams in the NHL. This felt better than an easy win to break the losing streak. 

  • Then again: “I mean, I would rather win, like, five-nothing,” quipped Zadorov.