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I Watched This Game: Canucks their own worst enemy against the Penguins

J.T. Miller was excellent; the rest of the Canucks were not in a frustrating overtime loss to the Penguins.
The Vancouver Canucks coughed up a 2-0 lead to lose in overtime against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Vancouver Canucks never got the memo that a 2-0 lead is the worst lead in hockey.

Through the first twenty minutes of Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Canucks were clearly the better team. They took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission and were comfortably in control of the game. It looked like they would cruise to an easy win. 

That’s the trap that a 2-0 lead can lull you into. The old cliché rang true on Tuesday, as the Canucks’ complacency cost them in the second period and that two-goal lead disappeared within the first ten minutes.

“If we had the mentality of winning the game today, we could have killed them in the second period,” said J.T. Miller. “Instead, we let them back in the game.”

Like Lit, the Canucks were their own worst enemy in this game, giving the puck away like it was a promotional t-shirt.

“It was a lot of turnovers,” said head coach Rick Tocchet. “It was self-inflicted.”

“You’re flipping a coin when you play games like this, who’s gonna win,” he added. “To me, the turnovers were just unacceptable.”

Even while they were bleeding from all of their self-inflicted wounds, the Canucks still managed to get the game to overtime to at least earn a single point, but the consolation prize unsurprisingly didn’t console the Canucks in the slightest.

“When we’re up two-nothing at home, that should be a lockdown point. We don’t need three, four, five, and six goals at that point,” said Miller. “We let them back into the game and they inevitably won the game.”

So, what was the cause of the letdown? What led to all of the turnovers and mistakes? 

Part of it was the Penguins’ aggressive forecheck, which caught the Canucks’ defence hanging onto pucks for too long. Some of it was Sidney Crosby doing Sidney Crosby things, because Sidney Crosby remains Sidney Crosby even at 36 years of Sidney Crosby.

But Tocchet also suggested there’s an element of fatigue — both physical and mental — even though the Canucks had two days off between games.

“Hopefully, we get some guys’ legs back and some of their brains back again,” said Tocchet, “because we’re a little sloppy.”

The Canucks skipped down the yellow brick road to see the Wizard after I watched this game. 

  • J.T. Miller had yet another outstanding game. He picked up the primary assist on a power play goal, created a shorthanded goal in a cave with a box of scraps, and matched up well against Sidney Crosby at even-strength. Miller was so good that Rogers Arena erupted in a loud “J.T. Miller” chant that unfortunately did not reach the ears of its intended recipient.
  • “I didn’t even hear them, to be honest with you,” said Miller. That might seem impossible, but the chant came in the middle of play and when players are focused on the game, so much of the crowd noise becomes white noise — they hear the ebbs and flows, the waves of support crashing around them, but specific words get completely lost.
  • “There were a lot of average guys out there,” said Tocchet. “Millsy drove play again today. I thought Millsy was great. Very, very good today.”
  • Elias Pettersson’s line came up with the opening goal on a strong first period shift. Nils Höglander fed Tyler Myers at the point, then drove towards the net to pick up the rebound, only to shovel it just wide on the backhand. No matter: he did it again, feeding Myers for another one-timer and boxed out Crosby to again pick up the rebound, this time on his forehand, and fired it in. As they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again slightly differently.
  • Tocchet completely blew up the power play for this game, splitting up the first unit, with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser going on one unit with Filip Hronek, Conor Garland, and Pius Suter, while Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes went on the other unit with Nils Höglander, Elias LIndholm, and Arshdeep Bains. There’s no chance it’s a long-term solution but the Canucks got a power play goal, so it sort of worked in the short-term.
  • Boeser made a savvy read on the 2-0 goal, taking a couple of hard strides from the slot into the right faceoff circle to open up for a pass from Miller, then turned on the pass like Olly on Jon Snow, firing it past Tristan Jarry with a little help from a Marcus “Alliser Thorne” Pettersson deflection.
  • Teddy Blueger has been so steady this season, which was why it was shocking to see him chip a puck into the middle of the ice in the defensive zone, giving the puck away to his old teammate, Crosby, who relayed the puck to Rickard Rakell to deke around Tyler Myers and Thatcher Demko for the Penguins’ first goal. Ironically, Blueger didn’t have a single assist on a Crosby point in his time as a Penguin; he had to become a Canuck to do that.
  • “You can’t give that puck away in the middle,” said Tocchet bluntly. “That was a gift.”
  • Conor Garland did not have a good game at all, as his line was thoroughly outplayed all night. But this one second-effort play he made in the neutral zone was pretty neat, even if it didn’t amount to anything.
  • Penalty troubles led to the tying goal, as Nikita Zadorov took a tripping penalty on a slewfoot, then Tyler Myers exacerbated the issue by immediately crosschecking Rakell in the side of the head off the ensuing faceoff. The penalty box suddenly had so much size that Craig Conroy drafted it in the third round. 
  • The two-man advantage made it painfully easy for the Penguins to tie the game. Jeff “Somehow Still in the NHL” Carter boxed out Ian Cole in front of the net to create a passing lane for Crosby, who gifted Rakell with a tap-in goal at the back door. There hasn’t been a play with better execution since Our American Cousin.  
  • Just when it seemed like the game might careen out of control, Miller stepped up with a monumental effort to put the Canucks back in front. Pettersson tipped a Demko ring-around towards the blue line and Miller hustled like Irving Rosenfeld and poked the puck past Kris Letang. The puck vaulted into the air, where Miller tapped it down with what might have been a high stick — who’s to say? — for a breakaway. Miller snapped the puck past Tristan Jarry’s blocker to make it 3-2.
  • Miller nearly created another shorthanded goal in the third period. He stole the puck in the offensive zone with a good stick, then made a great pass to set up the other Canucks forward on the ice. Unfortunately, it was Ilya Mikheyev, who, like an ouroboros, is  eternally snakebitten, and his shot was easily stopped.
  • The Canucks still couldn’t lock the game down and the Penguins tied the game up 3-3 midway through the third period. It started with Noah Juulsen sacrificing the body and taking a puck square in the back. He gamely stayed in the play but everything else fell apart. Höglander, in particular, completely blew it, allowing Lars Eller to skate right past him into the slot for a free shot that he snapped past a stickless Demko.
  • “We had a chance to get it out, we got out-battled up top, and then Höggy’s got to hold the middle,” said Tocchet. “If they pass it to the left side, so be it. Demmer will know where the puck is, let him play half the net. We just let the guy go through the guts of the ice and Demmer had no chance.”
  • Sequences like this one are why I think Pius Suter works well with Miller and Boeser. Although Suter isn’t the best finisher, he’s so smart along the boards and down low, creating more possession time for his linemates and giving them more opportunities to create scoring chances. Miller was unlucky not to score the game-winning goal on that slick Suter pass against the grain.
  • The Canucks still came agonizingly close to winning this game in overtime, as Quinn Hughes set up Boeser for a point blank chance that somehow didn’t slide under Jarry’s pad. It could have been back-to-back overtime game-winners for Boeser but the puck refused to cooperate with that narrative.
  • Instead, the Penguins took advantage of uncharacteristically sloppy play by Conor Garland to win the game. Garland mishandled a bouncing puck to end a Penguins possession, then stumbled as he tried to chase Reilly Smith, then stood watching instead of hustling to check Erik Karlsson as he potted a rebound after a brilliant save by Demko.
  • Garland and Miller provided a stunning visual metaphor of how their individual games went right after the goal. Both of them went to break their sticks on the net in frustration: Miller’s snapped clean in half, while Garland flubbed it and skated off with an intact stick.
  • Honestly, the way that Demko was hung out to dry in overtime felt all too familiar. Let’s not lapse into old defensive habits, shall we, Canucks? Fortunately, there’s no 3-on-3 overtime in the playoffs.