Quinn Hughes’ bounce back, Vasily Podkolzin’s impressive debut and a huge Canucks victory

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Vancouver Canucks needed this one.

Having lost six of their last seven games and with four straight contests against top Western contenders in Los Angeles, Vegas, Winnipeg and Colorado on the other side of Sunday’s game against Anaheim, the pressure was on to get back on track. Facing a Ducks team playing its third game in four nights — without Mason McTavish, Trevor Zegras or Leo Carlsson — is as close to a freebie as you’ll get in the NHL. Calling Sunday’s game a must-win would be overly dramatic, but considering all the factors at play, this had to be a get-right moment.

Thankfully, they got the job done.

The score, a 2-1 Vancouver victory, was close, but the control of play wasn’t. The ice was tilted for most of the evening, with the Canucks stacking shift after shift in the Ducks zone. They relentlessly won puck battles on the forecheck, forced turnovers on Anaheim’s breakout attempts and controlled play down low. It was Vancouver’s best defensive performance of the season according to Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model. This game was a reminder that Vancouver’s best defensive performances start with the forwards’ ability to wreak havoc on the forecheck, which was notably lethargic in the Thursday night thumping from Los Angeles.

Turning the dominant possession time into Grade-A chances was challenging, and coach Rick Tocchet referenced statistics of how frequently the Canucks’ shots have been blocked or missed the net since the All-Star break, but the club’s overall two-way form was a necessary step in the right direction.

Quinn Hughes and Nils Höglander were the most dynamic players on the ice all evening. And less than two minutes in, they hit the scoresheet together. Hughes hasn’t faced many blips in his all-world, Norris-worthy season, but he’s looked a bit fatigued recently, racked up just six points in his last 12 games before Sunday and was coming off arguably his worst performance of the year against the Kings.

Hughes’ highlight-reel-worthy assist on Höglander’s opening goal was a sign of adaptation. Lately, it’s as if teams have been content allowing Hughes to dart down the left-side boards with the puck, knowing it won’t kill them so long as they keep the puck to the outside. They seem to know that Hughes is usually looking to make a cross-seam backdoor pass on those puck carries and so they do a terrific job of clogging those passing lanes into the slot.

But Hughes had a trick up his sleeve against Anaheim. Vancouver’s captain crept down to the right half-wall where a forward usually would be, with Conor Garland covering the point, during an extended offensive zone shift. Once Filip Hronek sent the puck across, Hughes opened his body up, made a sweet drag move to step around Frank Vatrano and delivered a perfect pass for Höglander who rifled the puck home. It was an outside-of-the-box play that he hasn’t tried very often this year and it isn’t something the Ducks could have prescouted or anticipated.

Hughes drove a commanding 18-8 edge in five-on-five shots during his shifts. As for Höglander, he’s now top 10 in the NHL for five-on-five goals.

Höglander plays every shift like he’s been shot out of a cannon. He wins puck battles like a machine, is a little ball of chaos on the forecheck and is strong on his feet protecting the puck down low. Late in the second period, he lifted Radko Gudas’ stick on the forecheck and made a play to help the Canucks establish full offensive zone possession. Vancouver proceeded to push Anaheim against the ropes that entire shift, with Hughes zipping around the ice like a magician. That’s just one example of how effectively he drove play on Elias Pettersson’s line.

“He was maybe our best forward,” Tocchet said after the game. “He had some jump, kept the puck on his stick a lot, drove their D wide. Höggy was really good, not many turnovers by him, behind the net he was coming up with loose pucks.”

The Ducks were overmatched in talent and hemmed in their zone regularly, but they made the Canucks work hard for high-danger chances. Anaheim didn’t shoot itself in the foot with glaring defensive coverage mistakes or egregious turnovers. Vancouver’s game winner, at the expiry of a second-period power play, required three brilliant individual plays. Nikita Zadorov deservedly got a lot of credit for a terrific backdoor pass, but the play actually started with J.T. Miller.

Miller carried the puck from low to high and started cutting across the top of the offensive zone. He got two Ducks defenders to follow him and dropped the puck to Zadorov who now had open ice. Garland was being checked tightly in the slot but now his defender had a decision to either guard Zadorov or stick with Garland. Garland, recognizing his defender was in no-man’s land, made a sharp read to bolt to the net and Zadorov connected a beautiful pass.

“That’s the thing in man-on-man (the Ducks’ defensive system), if you can get a couple guys to bite, then you should burn them quick,” Garland told The Athletic. “If you can beat your guy to the net, you get a good chance, so (I) was just trying to spin off the guy.

“Z made a really, really good play. That’s kind of how I’ve scored goals my entire career, by just beating a guy to a quick space and getting a nice pass.”

Garland also had glowing things to say about Vasily Podkolzin, who made his season debut on the third line with him and Elias Lindholm.

“Having Podz helped tonight — how he forechecked, how he gets in, physical presence, a shot threat,” said Garland. “He has a bigger body and uses it, it kind of adds another presence to our line.

“He’s a really good kid, fun to work with. I told him before the game, ‘Just play free, relax, just get in and forecheck and we’ll have a good night.’

“For me, you probably need an F1 and F2 (on the forecheck) to be tight and try to get pucks back and that’s what he excelled at. He probably has a similar sense to Dak (Dakota Joshua) in that sense where it’s good to have an F1 and F2 that read off each other well.”

Podkolzin won battles, effectively protected possession down low and made high-percentage plays with the puck all night. He looked instinctual, free and confident rather than like he was overthinking as he did in training camp when he struggled. It’s only one game, so it’s important not to get carried away, but hopefully this is just the beginning of Podkolzin’s redemption arc.

(Photo of Quinn Hughes passing against Ducks defenseman Olen Zellweger: Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)

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