The worst team in the Western Conference is just five points out of a playoff spot.
This is a rather ludicrous situation. The Los Angeles Kings have just 50 points in 54 games. They’re old, slow, and can’t score goals. But they are within striking distance of the playoffs, because the eight teams ahead of them can’t create any separation from the basement of the Western Conference.
The gap between the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the playoffs is 18 points. Only two teams in the East that are not currently in playoff position are within five points of a playoff spot.
The top teams in the West have pulled away to such an extent that only the Wild Card positions remain in question, with some allowance for the Dallas Stars, who are just four points up on the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division. Everyone else in the top three spots in each division are sitting pretty.
In the Pacific, the Calgary Flames have 73 points, the San Jose Sharks have 71 points, and the Vegas Golden Knights have 66. Next best? The Canucks, 11 points back at 55 points. There is a massive gap, like a breakaway group at the Tour de France pulling away from the peloton.
So now the Canucks are caught in this Charlie Foxtrot of a situation, only in a playoff race because literally everyone in the Western Conference is in a playoff race. It’s an imbroglio, a boondoggle, a goat rope. In other words, it’s a big ol’ mess.
The Canucks faced another team caught in the mess in the Chicago Blackhawks, and managed to turn it into something dreaded by all the other teams in the mess with them: a three-point game. And I watched this game.
- The Canucks really deserved a better fate in this game, as they fire 43 shots on goal and had numerous Grade A scoring chances, but for the third game in a row, they were stymied by a fantastic goaltending performance. Rookie goaltender Collin Delia made 40 saves for the Blackhawks and somehow wasn’t named one of the three stars of the game. Watch the games, jocks!
- Loui Eriksson had some of the best chances on Delia and couldn’t buy a goal. On one early sequence he got robbed by Delia’s left toe, then hit the post on the rebound. On another, he got in behind Duncan Keith and once again was turned aside by Delia’s left toe, then hit the side of the net on the rebound. I haven’t seen a toe turn someone away that much since that gross toe fungus commercial they kept showing on Sportsnet.
- Alex “Bulldog” Biega hasn’t played much this season, but every time he gets in the lineup he makes you wonder why. He was flying against the Blackhawks, starting with one of the first good scoring chances of the game, cutting behind the defence to the net and nearly jamming the puck in. Shots were 9-1 for the Canucks at 5-on-5 with Biega on the ice, and he had a game-high five hits. Not bad for 12:36 of ice time.
- Like Kronos the Chronovore, Ben Hutton devoured minutes, finishing with a whopping 31:18 in ice time, a new career high. In fact, Hutton had never before breached 30 minutes. He spent the majority of his 5-on-5 ice time matched up against the Blackhawks’ top two lines and the Canucks still out-shot the Blackhawks when he was on the ice at 5-on-5.
- Josh Leivo got the prime cut of the ice time, playing alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. He made the most of it with a three-point night and the trio were dominant territorially, owning the boards like Jeff Bauspies. Expect to see more of that combination on Saturday against the Flames.
- The result of the game essentially turned on two 5-on-3 power plays: the Canucks failed to score on their two-man advantage and the Blackhawks' 5-on-3 led to two goals.
- The Canucks 5-on-3 simply didn’t create enough movement, either with the puck or with bodies. Without Edler’s big shot, Newell Brown put Boeser at the point, then confusingly used Leivo as the playmaker on the left boards to try to set up Boeser or Pettersson for a shot. The scheme itself wasn’t terrible, but Leivo seemed like the wrong guy in the wrong position, particularly when Nikolay Goldobin was in the lineup.
- Brandon Sutter gave the Blackhawks a 5-on-3 with a particularly blatant (and seemingly selfish) penalty. Erik Gustafsson ran a little interference on him at the blue line — not uncommon on the power play — and Sutter took exception, delivering a massive lumberjack chop to Gustafsson’s skates with his stick. The refs had no choice: Sutter was either heading to the box or the Timbersports World Championship.
- The retaliatory penalty was costly. The Blackhawks set up a quick passing play at 5-on-3 to give Alex Debrincat the opening goal, then made it 2-0 a minute later when Artem Anisimov kicked a puck out of a goalmouth scrum to Brandon Saad. It didn’t help that both Jay Beagle and Sutter, the Canucks’ top two penalty killers at forward, were in the box.
- The Canucks battled back in the second period and, like a Risk player starting in Australia, held the territorial edge. A strong shift by the Pettersson line got the Canucks on the board with a rare goal from Biega. The Bulldog got a bank pass from Boeser, walked to the middle, and ripped a slap shot over Delia’s right shoulder, as Pettersson crossed in front to provide a mobile screen.
- That goal allowed me to bring back one of my favourite bits of tomfoolery from last season: a riff on the old SEGA logo.
- A couple minutes later, Leivo tied the game at two with a ripper of a snap shot down the left wing. Jake Virtanen sent him in, Gustafsson gave him a little too much room, and Leivo seemed to catch Delia off-guard with how much mustard he put on the shot in stride. It zipped past Delia’s glove, and the goaltender could only react like he’d interrupted someone arranging matches: "Oh, uh...oh."
- Then the Canucks gave the Blackhawks another 5-on-3, because the first one wasn’t damaging enough. This time it was Derrick Pouliot cross-checking his man through the numbers in the danger area near the boards. They managed to kill that one off, at least, largely thanks to a brilliant save by Jacob Markstrom on Debrincat, coming to his right on a cross-seam pass to kick the shot away.
- The Blackhawks regained the lead on a broken play that had blame spilling everywhere. Almost every Canuck on the ice got a little blame on them. Markus Granlund missed the puck and his chance to clear the zone. Sutter and Tanev both went for a puck and missed it instead of picking up Dylan Strome heading to the net. And Erik Gudbranson did the same spinning-to-the-outside move that didn’t work against the Flyers a couple games ago, leaving Debrincat plenty of space to finish Strome’s nifty backhand pass.
- Goldobin got limited ice time in this game, which is frustrating, because the Canucks were trailing for most of the game and could have used some more creativity in the offensive zone given how much possession they had of the puck. Also, it’s not like he took a dumb penalty that led to two goals against, so seeing him benched for most of the second period was hard to swallow. He got more time in the third, however, and should have drawn multiple penalties on one particular shift when he was both hauled and then cross-checked to the ice, but apparently Goldobin is also in the referees’ doghouse.
- The power play was mostly bad all night, but came through in the clutch for the tying goal on a penalty drawn by Sutter. It helped that there were just a few minutes left and Markstrom was pulled for the extra attacker. The 6-on-4 seemed to create a little more space for Pettersson at the right faceoff circle and Troy Stecher put it in his wheelhouse for a bullet of a one-timer from the PetterZone.
- I feel for Delia. If you watch that goal from a closer angle, you’ll see that Pettersson’s shot actually went in off Delia’s mask. So, not only did he give up the tying goal in the final minutes of regulation, he got drilled in the face to boot. Of course, with the velocity of a Pettersson one-timer, I'd just be happy to still have my ear attached after that goal.
- The Canucks had just two shots on goal in overtime, but they were both great chances, or led to great chances. The first came off the stick of Virtanen, who shot for a rebound off Delia’s left pad, giving Horvat a wide open net. Unfortunately, the puck fluttered just over Horvat’s stick. Fun fact: that would have given Virtanen his first ever two-assist game in the NHL.
- Pettersson had an even better chance off a great play by Markstrom. The goaltender made a save off Strome, then Pettersson called for a pass and broke up the ice. Markstrom quickly dropped the puck and sprung Pettersson on a breakaway from his knees, but Pettersson put the puck an inch too high and Delia got a piece of it with his glove.
- This was not Chris Tanev’s night. He ended up on the ice for all four Blackhawks’ goals, but looked worst on the overtime winner. Toews did a slow loop around the Canucks’ zone, then attacked quickly on the right side before cutting in with the puck just as Tanev reached for the pokecheck. The puck passed under Tanev’s stick and Toews snapped it just inside the far post.
- A tap of the stick to the Chicago Blackhawks, who managed to dig out the puck from Tyler Motte’s first career goal, which had been lost for two-and-a-half years. They framed it with game’s box score and a couple photos of Motte as a member of the Blackhawks and left it in Motte’s locker for him to find after the game. Fantastic.
So, the Blackhawks found Motte’s first NHL goal puck. And framed it for him. It’s waiting for him in his locker. pic.twitter.com/WNWSTiimff— Dan Murphy (@sportsnetmurph) February 8, 2019