Never stop moving.
That’s a lesson Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet has been hammering home with his team early in the 2023-24 NHL season.
Coming off two straight losses where his team had stopped moving in crucial moments, there was little doubt the Canucks’ bench boss wanted to see his team’s process improve, let alone them get a win.
Both things happened on Saturday as the Canucks snared a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
It was a game about details, both good and bad.
The Canucks didn’t start the game well, but their power play kept them in it.
Their second period process was much better than it’s been.
And as Florida skated hard in the third, at times swarming the Canucks in their own end and overcoming a 3-1 deficit, a big effort in a crucial moment grabbed the Canucks a win.
Phil DiGiuseppe went on a solo forecheck late in the third, minutes after the Panthers had tied the game and looked like they’d keep piling on the pressure. He stripped ex-Canuck Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the puck behind the Panthers’ net, then got the shot into the slot for Andrei Kuzmenko, who played patient and fired the puck over a sprawling Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovksy.
DiGiuseppe’s effort was exactly the kind of play that has won the heart of his head coach and will keep him in the NHL this season, should he keep it up.
And for Kuzmenko, it was a big goal on a night where Tocchet had hoped he’d find his way back onto the score sheet.
Not only did the crafty Russian score the winning goal, he set up a goal by Elias Pettersson in the second period in fine fashion.
Winning the second
The Canucks had struggled in the previous two games in the middle frame.
They’d been swamped in the flow of play, with chances being fired with abandon at their net, against few from the opponents.
But on this night, not only did they outshoot Florida in the second, the quality of the shots were better too.
The Panthers swarmed the Canucks in the third but (a) they were Stanley Cup finalists with good reason last year, they were going to mount a challenge at some point and (b) trailing teams usually seize control of the play.
The Canucks’ response under pressure was, well, in the end the best response.
PP saving the day
When you’re under pressure at even strength, your special teams can bail you out.
The Canucks went two for three on the power play.
They took a 2-1 lead because of goals by Quinn Hughes — in the first period — and by Carson Soucy, at the tail end of a second period man-advantage.
And on the penalty kill, the Canucks killed both of Florida’s opportunities, and looked pretty good doing it.
Big game leadership
The Canucks have been in a skid. Hughes clearly saw a time to step up.
He scored a goal. He rushed the puck whenever he could.
He was like a point guard in basketball, taking control of the offensive zone, pushing his team’s attack.
He kept pucks in at the blue line.
He was Mr. Everything, playing 25:30 on the night.
The Canucks had 22 shots attempts at the Florida net while he was on the ice. And defensively, he was strong too. The Panthers had just six scoring chances at even strength with him on the ice, and scored just one goal.
Aleksander Barkov’s goal was not about Tyler Myers. The Canucks’ defence are supposed to be aggressive in defending the blueline.
But it’s contingent on the forwards working to back check.
And yet there was no one working to cover the middle of the ice, so Barkov waltzed through.
Tocchet and his players have highlighted how important the forwards are in backtracking so that the defencemen can step up at the blueline.
On the Panthers’ third goal, Sam Reinhart was all alone before he hired his shot past Casey DeSmith. And it was Ilya Mikheyev who was the forward pinching down low to help the D who didn’t read the open man.
Mikheyev was playing his first game of the season but that won’t make him or coach Tocchet feel any better.
Veteran defenceman Ekman-Larsson had a miserable season with the Canucks in 2022-23. Trying to come back from a broken foot, his skating was slow. He struggled to manoeuvre on many nights.
He’s had a decent start to his time in Florida.
And on Saturday, against his old team, he was +20 in shot attempts. That’s helping your team be dominant.
But he was second-best in the most crucial moment and the Canucks got a win.
All this chatter about Conor Garland wanting a trade: Elliotte Friedman brought up his availability again on Hockey Night in Canada. Remember when the NHL Network randomly thought he’d be an option to be captain in Vancouver?
Yeah, that was never going to be a thing.
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