The Sunday Crease

The Sunday Crease: Goalies, Dorsett and ‘Fifty Mission Cap’

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Through eight games last season, the Canucks had put together a 4-3-1 record. Tonight, with a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver improved to that exact same record eight games into the 2017-18 season.

But something feels different this time around.  

Maybe it’s in the way each team got to that record. Last year’s Canucks famously opened the year with four straight victories before reality set in. That eighth game, a 2-0 shutout by Cam Talbot and the Edmonton Oilers, would end up being the fourth in the string of nine straight losses for Vancouver.

On the flip side, the win today was the Canucks’ third in their last four, guaranteeing them a winning record on their current five game road trip, regardless of the outcome in the finale against the Wild on Tuesday. The one loss in that span at the hands of the Boston Bruins was lousy, but Vancouver rebounded with two excellent outings against Detroit and the Buffalo Sabres.

The way they’ve won has made a difference too. Last year, it was four wins where they hung in and seemed to steal two points by the skin of their teeth. This season, each victory has come in an effort where the Canucks seemed to dominate their opponent, and was highlighted by scoring from up and down the roster (including plenty from a certain fourth liner).

Of course, what matters most is how this team plays going forward from now. They might go the way of last year’s team, where a rash of injuries and a lack of depth killed Vancouver down the stretch and sent them spiraling to a 29th place finish. I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who’ll tell you this is the most likely scenario.

But again, there’s something different about this Travis Green-led group. They’re faster, more skilled and just an overall tougher opponent than last year’s. While the odds on this translating into a playoff trip are still very slim, it does bode well in the big picture for the direction this franchise is heading.

Last season the Canucks hit rock bottom. But even though they have a long way to go, from the little I’ve seen this season, it looks like Vancouver is already starting the long, tough climb back to the top of the mountain.

The Fans Who Cried ‘Goalie Controversy’

After Jacob Markstrom’s rough night against the Flames last Saturday, Travis Green turned to newcomer Anders Nilsson for the Canucks first game of the trip against Ottawa. Nilsson’s 32 save shutout debut against the Senators earned him the next start in Boston, where he was shelled for four goals on 17 Bruins shots in the first period.

Markstrom was sent in to finish the game against the Bruins and then stopped 20 of 22 against the Buffalo Sabres the next day, but his critics immediately pointed to the Sabres’ second goal by Jack Eichel as a reason to put him back on the bench.

There’s really no fanbase in hockey that likes to throw the phrase “goalie controversy” around more than Canucks Nation, and now its’ use is at a fever pitch not seen since the great “Miller-Lack Divide” of 2015. But to me there is no controversy, just friendly competition between the starter (Markstrom) and the more than capable backup (Nilsson).

The Canucks net is Markstrom’s to lose. He’s under contract until 2020, so even if you’re on Team Nilsson, you should be hoping Markstrom gets every chance to prove you wrong. In a hypothetical future scenario where Vancouver does decide Nilsson is the goalie of the future, they’d likely need to prove to other teams why Markstrom and his $3.6 million cap hit is worth trading for.

In my mind, Nilsson is the stop gap for the Canucks while they wait for Thatcher Demko to show he’s ready for NHL action. And while the AHL season is very young, Demko’s .960 save percentage through four games of work tells me that day could be sooner rather than later.

Derek Dors-etzky?

When Derek Dorsett scored thanks to a deflection off the face of Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton five games ago, no one in the hockey world could’ve predicted what was on the way for the Canucks enforcer. Dorsett now has five goals in his last five games and sits tied with Brock Boeser for the team lead in points with six.

I don’t think there’s many people out there who think Dorsett will keep this pace up for another 74 games, which has him rubbing elbows on the NHL stats sheet with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Vladimir Tarasenko. But Dorsett’s run does tell you how much the Canucks’ chemistry is clicking early in the year.

Dorsett and Brandon Sutter have been stapled to each other on the fourth line, and even with different left wingers the pair have found success routinely this year. Whether or not Dorsett’s ridiculous scoring pace continues, hopefully the line’s chemistry is more than a flash in the pan.

Gudbranson suspended 1 game for boarding Bruins’ Vatrano

The Canucks statement victory over Buffalo came despite missing Erik Gudbranson, who served his one-game suspension for boarding Boston forward Frank Vatrano the day before against the Bruins.

Even though he isn’t a repeat offender, I’m a little surprised Gudbranson only lost one game for this hit. I was expecting a 2-3 game ban, but the Department of Players’ Safety decided otherwise. We’ll see how this precedent holds up against suspensions later in the year.

Around the Rinks

  • Due to my “West Coast bias”, I don’t usually see a lot of games featuring teams in the Eastern U.S., so you can imagine my shock when I saw the Buffalo Sabres’ performance against the Canucks. Vancouver was very clearly the more talented team, and had it not been for the goaltending of Chad Johnson the score could’ve been doubled. There’s plenty of potential in the Sabres lineup with young stars like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, and until they find a way into the postseason the fans aren’t fully realizing all of the best talent the game has to offer. Hopefully this club gets their act together soon.
  • Hockey players are a superstitious bunch. For example, I tap both sides of the boards when I’m stepping onto the ice to start a game. But Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Matt Martin may have taken rituals to a new level with their Smelling Salts secret handshake.

  • I think I’m the majority of people by having no idea that professional hockey existed in Mexico. But the Liga Mexicana Elite de Hockey is both very real and very sharp looking, thanks to this week’s unveiling of new logos and uniforms for the league’s four member teams. My personal favourites are the Mayan Astronomers, but the Aztec Eagle Warriors aren’t too far behind.

Play us out, Gord

Canadian music legend and lead singer of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, passed away last week at the age of 53. I’ll admit that I’ve committed a Canadian crime by not having listened to much of the Hip’s music in my lifetime, nor did I know that much about Downie or the band until he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year. But what little I do know about him comes from the accounts of other people, who talk about how amazing he was, both as a musician and as a person.

To me, there’s no better way to honour the memory of an artist than by enjoying their creation. So I felt the best way to end this week’s edition of the Sunday Crease is with the playing of a Hip classic, “Fifty Mission Cap”, which tells one of the most legendary stories about Downie’s favourite sport. Rest in peace, Gord.

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