To Watch The Canucks Is To Believe In The Canucks
9:04 AM EST on January 10, 2024
You can try counting the number of times Elias Pettersson touches the puck on this goal, but that's not a task I'm interested in signing up for. First, he accepts a pass from Teddy Blueger and then dangles the puck around the stick of a sliding sprawled defenseman, which is the appropriate reaction for when Pettersson has Brock Boeser across the way—take away the pass! Then Pettersson fires a shot directly into Igor Shesterkin, who makes the save. Then the puck rebounds back, and Pettersson corrals it on his backhand, taking a little dive below the goal line around Shesterkin's extended left leg before bringing it back into the crease. Then he switches back to his forehand and taps the puck into the goal while being tackle-tripped to the ice by a late-arriving Vincent Trocheck.
It's a miracle solo effort goal, courtesy of Pettersson's touch and stone-cold decision making that saw him through pulling off a Forsberg as a rookie. And because this is the 2023–24 Vancouver Canucks, Nils Höglander follows it up roughly 30 seconds later by passing the puck between his own legs and batting it through the five-hole to make the score 5-2.
But that's old news. That happened Monday night, a whole two days ago. On Tuesday night, the Canucks crossed town and faced the Islanders in one of those classic zero days' rest vs. two days' rest matchups, which is the ideal time to both experience and justify experiencing a beatdown.
Only, the Canucks came out to a fast-paced first period that eventually ended in a couple of goals, though neither of were particularly pretty—during the first, Casey Cizikas was writhing on the ice after blocking a shot, and during the second, the Islanders briefly stopped playing, unsure of whether or not the puck had escaped the blue line. This obviously could not stand, and so halfway through the second period, with the aid of Filip Hronek, Pettersson stole the puck in the Islanders' own zone and managed to execute a give-and-go with J.T. Miller with Ilya Sorokin practically in between them.
So the Canucks notched a 6-3 victory and a 5-2 victory on back-to-back days, maintaining their steady lead on the rest of the Pacific Division, and did it in style. You like xG? Here's an advanced stat for you: xGrit, a proprietary Defector model that determines how in it to win it the guys in the locker room are. Quinn Hughes answered a question about whether or not he could take a moment to savor their win against the Rangers by saying, "I wish I could tell you guys that I’m having the best year of my life and that everything is rainbows. But it’s still a lot of stress. In my mind, I’m already thinking about tomorrow." It's just about the most depressing way of reframing the classic "one game at a time" mentality, but it certainly gets the point across: Whatever else Rick Tocchet is doing, the xGrit is off the charts.
The last time we checked in with the Canucks, they were also playing the Islanders, no doubt fueled by their Bo Horvat–related angst to be narratively significant. They were also riding a remarkable PDO—or, combined goalie save percentage and skater shooting percentage—high. An unsustainable PDO high, in fact, and indeed it wouldn't quite be sustained. Thatcher Demko's save percentage dropped from .932 and now sits at a still-very-good-but-much-more-mortal .916. Except fast forward another month, and their PDO has rocketed back up, and most importantly, the Canucks are still winning convincingly. They've scored at least five goals in each of their past six wins. All of those wins were by at least two goals.
So: Are the Vancouver Canucks just good? PDO, a hacky stat by design, isn't only a measure of luck—after all, efficient teams with good goalies will naturally have a high PDO. Then again, there are five (five!) Canucks in the top 10 qualified players by shooting percentage, which admittedly is not sustainable. But watching them play, it's only a natural result of everything that makes them fun to watch. It's obscene to think that a fifth of the time that Brock Boeser—who is currently on pace to crush his previous season high in points and goals—shoots the puck, it's going into the goal. Then you get watch his shot and you can believe it. It's even more obscene to think that quarter of the time Nils Hogländer shoots the puck, he scores a goal. Then you scroll back up and look at the video of him passing the puck to himself between the legs, and, like, aw, man. Sure, why not?