If there was ever a time to turn their season around, this would be it. After a tough stretch when the Vancouver Canucks dropped to sixth place in the North Division with half the season remaining, they now have something to build on after their two-game sweep vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There were a few major factors that made a significant difference in determining the outcomes from the first series against the Maple Leafs to the latest one. From the net out, some of those factors played into the Canucks favour, while others didn’t. But looking ahead to the second half of the season, they all may pay off in the long run for Vancouver.
The Last Time Around
The last three-game set against the Maple Leafs went very differently. The Canucks were swept convincingly, outscored 15-5, as Toronto’s top-end talent got the better of them. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner alone combined for 12 points in the series, not to mention the contributions from bottom-six players like Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza, who had a hat trick in the opener.
This time, Matthews and Marner were held off the scoresheet, and the Canucks kept the second highest-scoring team in the league to just three goals over two games. But it wasn’t just that. It was the level of their defensive play, winning puck battles, getting timely saves and scoring timely goals, including three in the third period after trailing through 40 minutes on Saturday night.
Winning in Goal
The Canucks’ goaltenders have struggled this season. Through the first half, Brayden Holtby and Thatcher Demko split time in net, and neither of them ran away with the starting job. Vancouver wasn’t winning in that department, and at one point, they led the league in goals against. However, over the last week, that narrative has started to change, as Demko has taken the reins.
Demko started one of the three games back in February, relinquishing seven goals on 31 shots. This time around, the net was his, and he did not disappoint. In Thursday and Saturday’s games, he gave up just three goals on 71 shots for a 1.51 goals against average (GAA) and a .958 save percentage (SV%). When a goaltender goes toe-to-toe and out-duels the opposition’s netminder, the team in front of him gains confidence. Right now, Vancouver has that confidence, and it was on full display against the Maple Leafs.
Doing It Without Petterson
What’s even more impressive was that the Canucks’ two-game sweep came without arguably their best player. Elias Pettersson missed both contests due to an upper-body injury. He is fourth on the team in points, with 10 goals and 11 assists through 26 games. When Vancouver needed players to step up in Pettersson’s absence, they came through.
Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller played a strong two games, including a three-point night (1 goal, 2 assists each) on Saturday. Bo Horvat had three points in the two games, but it wasn’t just the stars who contributed. Jake Virtanen, who has been rumoured to be on the trading block, had a huge two-goal game in Thursday’s 3-1 victory, and rookie Nils Hoglander scored the dagger in Saturday’s win. The Canucks needed a balanced attack and contributions from everybody, not once but twice, if they were to take down the Maple Leafs. And they got it.
The Canucks cannot rest on their laurels. Over this next stretch, they will have to deal with the Montreal Canadiens, who just made a statement against the Winnipeg Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, who are looking to keep a playoff spot, and the Jets, who are second in the division and swept Vancouver during their last two-game set. Yes, the Ottawa Senators are sprinkled in there, but they just came off a victory against the Calgary Flames and are gaining confidence as a group.
Every victory is huge, especially in the high-flying Scotia North Division, but claiming two consecutive wins against Toronto shouldn’t be the high point of their season. The Canucks need to continue to build on the hard work and good habits displayed against the Maple Leafs and take that into the next two-game set vs. the Canadiens.
I’m a London, Ontario based broadcaster and sports writer for the Vancouver Canucks. I’ve done work in the past reporting on the NHL, NBA and MLB. I’ve also covered the OHL including the Owen Sound Attack and am currently involved with the London Knights.