ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – And on the 14th day of training camp and pre-season, the Vancouver Canucks won a game.
It didn’t get them any points but counted for a lot of other things as the Canucks, desperate for some positivity and progress as the National Hockey League regular season rushes towards them – ready or not – survived a wild third period to beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-4 before a sold-out crowd at the Abbotsford Centre.
It ended a five-game pre-season winless streak that had seen Vancouver outscored 22-7, and gave the Canucks something to latch on to as they prepare to play the Oilers for real in Edmonton on opening night, next Wednesday.
“Yeah, finally,” winger Tanner Pearson said. “Obviously, it was long overdue. Especially in the next few days, we start ramping it up and, you know, we see those guys in a week, too. We start to play some serious hockey even though there’s still one more left.”
The Canucks close out their seven-game pre-season Friday at Rogers Arena against the Arizona Coyotes, who are already in the Vancouver area for team-building exercises.
The Canucks looked like they could use some of those, too, but finally dressing something very near a full NHL lineup helped immensely.
The Oilers dressed the best player in the world in Connor McDavid, who naturally rewarded fans with a world-class goal when he zipped around Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes early in the second period.
But the Canucks had the best player in the game in Elias Pettersson, who survived a scary boarding from Markus Niemelainen to score a pair of power-play goals in the third period. Pettersson set a tone for the Canucks with three hits on his opening shift.
He has been the best Canuck since training camp opened.
FAR FROM PERFECT
Canuck Spencer Martin, who will back up Thatcher Demko this season, allowed four goals on the first 14 shots he faced, but stopped the final seven in just his second pre-season appearance.
A three-goal night for Vancouver’s power play was also diminished greatly by yielding shorthanded goals to Oilers Zach Hyman and James Hamblin.
But, overall, the Canucks did meet coach Bruce Boudreau’s demand to play with more pace and intensity.
“We need to play faster,” Boudreau said after the morning skate. “We just want to move the puck quicker and play a little quicker.”
A MILLER TALE?
After piecing together lineups while starting the pre-season 0-3-2, the Canucks went with a full-scale NHL side in Abbotsford, sitting out only injured players, prospects and J.T Miller.
Miller took the morning skate with teammates at the University of B.C. and was expected to centre the top line between Conor Garland and Pearson, but was a surprising scratch. Miller did not make the one-hour drive east with teammates for the game in the Fraser Valley.
Boudreau didn’t offer a status report on Miller post-game but claimed it was always the plan to sit him out Wednesday.
We’ll see Friday.
The team is already missing wingers Brock Boeser (hand) and Ilya Mikheyev (lower body), and defenceman Travis Dermott (head).
ORDER OF DEFENCE
After practising through training camp and playing one pre-season game as the right-side defence partner of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Hughes was back on his natural left side with familiar partner Luke Schenn.
That move is due, partly, to the continued good health of righty defenceman Tucker Poolman, who missed all but four minutes of the final three months of last season due to neurological complications from migraine headaches.
Poolman hadn’t looked particularly good since camp opened, but was better on Wednesday, quicker retrieving and passing pucks while also making a couple of standout defensive plays.
The veteran has been getting better with practice reps and, critically, been able to keep working daily without any apparent complications. After last season, when Poolman was underwhelming in 40 games at the start of his four-year, $10-million-US free-agent contract, his health – and play – is a huge wildcard for the organization.
“It was a long summer. . . just getting back to baseline,” Poolman told reporters after the Canucks’ morning skate. “The first game, especially, I was just trying to just play and see what happens. It went great. . . so that was just kind of a big relief.
“It’s been great just to play. I’m still working on some things, I think, and getting into the swing of it. But it’s been awesome to be out here.”
Asked if he feels he can play better than he did during his first season in Vancouver, the former Winnipeg Jet said: “I think for me, I’ve got to be skating, try to push the pace, play simple, just try to execute as best I can.
“If I’m playing my best, I shouldn’t be doing anything too fancy. But I’m skating, my gap should be good, I’m doing quick, easy plays, jumping (into the attack) when I can. But I should be skating and playing simple.”
Poolman played Wednesday with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The third pair was Tyler Myers and Kyle Burroughs.
NOT GONE, JUST FORGOTTEN
There was one guy largely forgotten amid the frenzied debate about Hughes’ possible switch to the right side and the Canucks’ ongoing quest to find him a top-tier defence partner: his old partner.
After “stabilizing” Hughes’ game – Quinn’s description – and helping the prodigy erase long-standing franchise scoring records by a defenceman last season with a 68-point campaign, Schenn heard all summer how he needed to be replaced, then arrived at training camp to see Hughes on a pairing with No. 2 defenceman Ekman-Larsson.
As always, Schenn just focussed on his game, being a good teammate and pro and doing whatever he could to help his team while making himself valuable. Instead of helping Hughes, Schenn practised with and tutored another young defenceman, Jack Rathbone, one of the Canucks’ top prospects.
But after zero wins in five games, Schenn was reunited with Hughes at even-strength on Wednesday.
Ever the pro, Schenn told reporters before the game that he focuses on “one day at a time” and doesn’t make assumptions based on pre-season pairings.
But when asked later about the movement to move Hughes away from him, Schenn told Sportsnet: “I’m aware of the talk as far as bringing in defencemen and a guy to play with Quinn. I don’t live under a rock where I don’t hear about it. But in saying that. . . I think I’m trying to get better in my career, too. I don’t really care how old I am or how much experience I have, I’m trying to get better and I think the past few years I’ve been working on things to get better.
“Of course, you want to play with the best players and have your game at the highest level, right? I know there’s talk about different options for long-term sustainability and who’s playing with him. I don’t really look into that. My game is off when I start thinking too much. But there’s no question I’m aware of what’s going on.”