Four months and 18 days, that’s how long it was since the Vancouver Canucks played a hockey game of any kind. So you can imagine what it was like for Canucks Nation to finally see the likes of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes or any Canuck for that matter show off their skills on Wednesday night. Granted, it was a little strange to watch hockey in a hot living room at the end of July, but it didn’t take long for it to feel normal again. Nature is healing, Canucks hockey is back.
However, it also didn’t take long to realize that no amount of time off could eliminate the bad luck the Canucks have had against the Winnipeg Jets. Including this 4-1 exhibition game defeat, they have dropped 11 straight against the men in blue, while being outscored 39-11. It’s starting to become predictable, play well enough to win but ultimately get beaten by a hot goaltender and some opportunistic scoring.
Having said all that, this was just a meaningless exhibition game with no impact to be had on the standings or overall playoff picture. The Canucks did play a solid game and there were some positive standouts among the troops. So for the first time in four months and 18 days, here are seven takeaways from the first and hopefully last exhibition game played in the month of July.
Pettersson AKA “Dekey Pete” is Back and Ready to Dominate
It was clear throughout training camp that Pettersson had found an extra gear. Four months off can do wonders for a young body like his, and boy did he look refreshed. His passion, skills and overall personality came through in spades during the game on Wednesday. He was fast, he was dekey and above all, he looked poised to lead his team into battle. There was one sequence where he narrowly missed burying his patented one-timer and appeared to be saying to himself, “I missed it by that much”.
Pettersson also had a rush where he nearly went coast-to-coast, if not for a defender clipping him, he would have gone right in on Connor Hellebuyck. Basically, his confidence is at an all-time high right now, and I do not envy the Minnesota Wild when they face him on Sunday.
We are starting to become familiar with Pettersson’s alien-like tendencies, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s only 21-years-old and not at all close to his ceiling yet. That’s exciting to envision, especially when he hasn’t even played a single minute in the pressure cooker that is the NHL postseason. We already saw a playoff version of him during the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) playoffs, and he came away with honours as the MVP. So we know he can ramp it up when it matters the most. I have no doubt that was not the last we have seen of playoff Petey. He will eventually return against the Wild, and we couldn’t be happier.
Boeser AKA “The Flow” Is Back and Ready to Rock
Next to Pettersson, Brock Boeser was probably the best forward on the ice for the Canucks in the game against the Jets. He had at least three grade-A chances, including a breakaway that was thwarted by Hellebuyck who, by the way, was the best player on both sides in this game. Ever since training camp began a couple of weeks ago, Boeser has looked faster, more engaged, and above all, his shot looks hard and dangerous for the first time since his rookie season. Those things should be music to every Canucks fan’s ears as he could be a huge difference-maker in the upcoming play-in series against his hometown Wild.
If not for the Vezina-caliber goaltending of Hellebuyck, he probably would have found the net at least once. His timing may have been a little off on the chance where he missed the net, but that should come pretty quickly as he plays more shifts in actual games. The biggest thing to come out of this game was the fact that he was getting chances and looked dangerous all game long. “The Flow” is back ladies and gentlemen, and that should excite all fans from every corner of the hockey world.
Virtanen Should Replace Sutter in Game 1
One of the biggest surprises to come out of the first exhibition game was the absence of Jake Virtanen in the lineup. Similar to training camp in September, he has been relegated to a minimal role on the roster by head coach Travis Green. Though, if it follows the same script, he will eventually become a major factor for this team. However, this time he will not get as many chances to impress his head coach, as the upcoming series is a short one and Green cannot afford to be patient with any of his players.
Fortunately for Virtanen, Zack MacEwen and Brandon Sutter did not have strong outings against the Jets on the fourth line, so the door seemingly has a little crack in it. Sutter looked slow and rusty and the only thing we saw from MacEwen was a massive hit against that sent him horizontal. So, Green could opt to put more speed and size on that line to make it more of a factor, because it didn’t exactly look good out there on this night. If he does ultimately get in, it will be up to him to convince his head coach that he should never leave the lineup again by showcasing his speed and physicality every time he’s on the ice.
Juolevi Climbs the Depth Chart
Even though it was only six minutes and change, Olli Juolevi looked solid in his NHL debut with the Canucks. He made the simple plays, skated well, and even launched a perfect outlet pass to a player moving up the ice. All those things are his bread and butter, and he definitely showcased them in his first test in the NHL.
Now it’s probably too soon to say that he has usurped Oscar Fantenberg and Jordie Benn on the depth chart, but right now he’s firmly entrenched in the seventh defenceman spot in the lineup. With Benn awaiting the birth of his child and the subsequent isolation period following that, he is only one injury away from being inserted into his first postseason game. That’s something we probably couldn’t say just a few months ago, that’s for sure.
Juolevi has come a long way and even looked better than the current sixth defenceman on the depth chart. In fact, if I was Green I would seriously consider inserting him on the third pairing with Troy Stecher on Sunday, given how Fantenberg struggled in the game on Wednesday. Though, it may be too small of a sample size to decide that a rookie is the better option in the first of many key games this postseason.
Canucks Lose to the Jets, Life is Returning to Normal
Just like death and taxes, a loss to the Jets is becoming an inevitable event for the Canucks. There were many signs in the game on Wednesday that life was returning to normal, as they not only lost to the Jets, they did so after a solid offensive game, and by giving up the first goal yet again.
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Hellebuyck looked like the Vezina Trophy winner he probably will turn out to be, as he made multiple high danger chance saves and even two breakaway stops as well. The Jets then cashed in on a few opportunistic chances in the second period to win the game. Sound familiar? That’s because it happened many times during the regular season, not only against the Canucks, but against most of the teams the Jets faced. There’s a reason he’s the best goaltender in the NHL right now, and why the Jets are in the postseason today.
The Canucks played a solid game to be sure, but a couple of defensive miscues and otherworldly goaltending ultimately took them to the cleaners. I guess one of the positives to take from all this is that they will not be facing the Jets in the qualifying round and that none of the Wild goaltenders are near the caliber of Hellebuyck.
Canucks’ Power Play Needs Work
Most of the power play units in the short exhibition season have looked rusty, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Canucks’ unit suffer the same fate. Except for a near-miss by Pettersson on a slick one-timer, the first unit of Hughes, Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Tyler Toffoli, and Bo Horvat didn’t look particularly dangerous. I could count only one time where they set up properly, and that was when the aforementioned Pettersson missed the net on his one-timer. They had a hard time entering the zone with control, and even Hughes looked unsure of himself at times, and that’s a rare thing to say about the uber rookie this season.
I wouldn’t panic though, as this was an exhibition game after months away from actual power play practice against NHL opponents. I’m sure they will get it together when it comes time to play for real. Though, having said that, the Canucks do need their power play to be a factor in the upcoming series, as I believe it will be the difference between moving on and going home after only a week in the postseason. Though with all the elite talent available, it should turn out to be a positive factor in the end.
Canucks Played a Solid Team Game
Despite the suspect defensive play and lack of finish against the Jets, the Canucks played a solid team game. The top-nine looked dangerous and ready to go, and the top pairing of Hughes and Chris Tanev was smooth and in control most of the time. Even though Miller looked like he was shaking off some rust at times, Pettersson, Toffoli, Horvat, and Tanner Pearson had their chances and Boeser was as good as we’ve seen him in years. Those are all huge positives as they get ready to face the Wild.
Jacob Markstrom did allow three goals, but for the most part, he looked calm and in control of his movements. The only goal that he probably would have wanted back was the Tucker Poolman wrist shot from the point, albeit he was screened at the time. Needless to say, I don’t think we need to worry about him going into the series as the number one goaltender for the Canucks.
All in all, the Canucks only need to figure out their fourth line, as the third unit of Antoine Roussel, Adam Gaudette and Micheal Ferland looked engaged and fired up for most of the game. They were hard and physical on the forecheck and eventually buried a goal after an excellent wrap-around try by Gaudette. If they can continue that energy and forechecking pressure against the Wild, they should end up being a positive factor when all is said and done.
What’s Next for the Canucks?
After their one and done exhibition game, the Canucks will now prepare for the real thing on Sunday night against the Wild. Before that, we will see what decisions Green has made with his lineup. Does Virtanen come in on the fourth line? Will Juolevi make his actual NHL debut? All those questions and more will be answered when postseason hockey finally returns to our living rooms on the weekend. All I have to say is, it’s about time.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.