NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vancouver Canucks found another gear on Tuesday night in Nashville.
On form, this wasn’t a continuation of a solid start to the season. This was something different.
The Canucks have been winning games this year, but they haven’t looked the way they did in Tuesday’s performance. This was a complete game; a truly dominant performance.
On the 13th day of the road trip — with players really feeling the lengthy start-of-season absence from their own beds, families and dogs — and against a team of comparable quality in a city filled with distractions, the Canucks stomped their opponent 3-2.
This wasn’t a win built off of goaltending or bounces, even if Thatcher Demko was excellent and the Canucks enjoyed some puck luck. This wasn’t a gritty team under siege pulling out two points on the road while hanging on by its fingernails.
No — on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, the Canucks stormed the Nashville Predators. They played suffocating hockey, granted their opponent no quarter — although Elias Pettersson granted them a stay of execution late when he uncharacteristically missed on an empty net twice — and stacked heavy shift on top of heavy shift, building to an impossible height.
Their one-goal lead felt impregnable. Their victory was assured, even when they briefly lost their composure with two late penalties.
This was the sort of game that, should the Canucks hit this gear with any regularity, brings with it the promise of a fun season. And a lot more wins to come.
“Definitely it feels different this season,” said Pettersson after the game. “This road trip was a step in the right direction. We had the bad effort against Philly, but it was a wake-up call for us.
“We controlled the game most of the time,” he added. “Everything feels better: our defense, our structure, how we want to defend, and we have two great goalies who have played lights out. We just have to keep on building, be humble and keep on going.”
The Canucks now seem to have momentum and some swagger. That can be fleeting, but asked if it feels different this year, Demko invoked his confident commentary from Philadelphia. Without a hint of arrogance from the Canucks starter, he wanted to remind us that he’d told us this group would bounce back.
Now, it’s still early and it’s going to take time for the sample to pool and the truth of this team to reveal itself. For this group especially, however, there’s real meaning in getting out of the gates with some points banked and some intent in their performance.
There’s real meaning, too, in demonstrating a bit of backbone and resilience on this trip. In recent seasons, we haven’t seen that from this group until their realistic playoff hopes are already shot.
What’s beginning to emerge now, in the early going, is a profile of a team that seems to be progressing. Some of how they’ve performed is in line with what we expected. Quinn Hughes has gone up a level, Pettersson is a superstar and Demko is lights out. The Canucks can fill the net and have a lights-out power play — which should’ve gotten a lot more work on Tuesday given how many times Vancouver players were tripped without a whistle from the officials — but are still deeply reliant on their top six forwards to generate offence.
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(This is why Nils Höglander — who returned to the lineup and had an uneven game on the whole, especially early on, but scored the game-winning goal with a second-period deflection — should be a must-have. He provides the Canucks with a realistic shot of generating actual offence in the bottom six, which they’re going to need over the long haul and seem to have no other reliable source of at the moment.)
Some of what we’re seeing, however, is a bit more surprising. The Canucks’ ability to break the puck out, which was tested by aggressive forechecking teams in South Florida and Nashville over the past 72 hours, looks meaningfully improved over what we’ve seen the past few years. That’s a massive development, given that their inability to connect play has been something of a fatal flaw in recent years.
And speaking of fatal flaws, Vancouver’s penalty kill is off to a solid start that seems legitimate, rather than the product of smoke and mirrors. This isn’t purely save-percentage driven. The Canucks aren’t bleeding five-alarm scoring chances against, and have seemingly choked off the seams that had made them so frustratingly permissive at four-on-five over the past few years.
If you combine stellar goaltending with top-of-the-lineup star power and a legitimate special teams edge on both sides of the puck, you usually have the recipe for a wild-card playoff team.
To take the next step though, to become a team capable of challenging for a top spot in the Pacific Division, requires a club to find a baseline ability to drive play at even strength. That’s where, despite a solid start, the Canucks still have room for improvement.
At five-on-five, in the early going, Vancouver hasn’t been imposing territorially. It’s been far too reliant on unsustainably excellent goaltending and finishing luck. In most of its games played, it has been under siege for a significant portion of the contest. In some of those contests — and in both of its early season losses — those stretches where the ice was tilted have buried them.
Which is what made Tuesday night in Nashville so fun and interesting — and so potentially significant if the Canucks can maintain something closer to this level of control with any consistency.
“Especially in the first half we were on top of the puck, snapping it around,” said Canucks coach Rick Tocchet when asked if he saw a new gear from his team on Tuesday. “It was nice to watch behind the bench. And you sort of chip away. In Tampa Bay we were a little bit better, in Florida we were a little bit better and tonight we put it all together.”
The Canucks have now answered some significant questions about their fortitude and ability to hurdle the “bad start” hump that’s dogged them.
Multiple fatal flaws that have sunk this team in the past — the penalty kill and the breakout — are trending toward areas of genuine competence, with the potential to become real strengths.
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s star players are at the top of their games, and a Pacific Division that seemed like such a gauntlet when the season started two weeks ago suddenly looks ripe for the taking given the early struggles of both Alberta teams and the regression in Seattle. And on Tuesday night, for one evening anyway, the Canucks showed us what it might look like when they put it all together and take over a game for 60 minutes.
Now, when they arrive back in Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon, they’ll do so with the wind at their back. There’s a lot of road to run and they haven’t accomplished anything yet, but opportunity knocks and there’s genuine cause for optimism.
(Photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)