Markstrom stops 34 and Virtanen scores the winner as Canucks beat Coyotes
Thursday January 16 - Vancouver Canucks 3 - Arizona Coyotes 1
To my eye, the new Arizona Coyotes looked a lot like the old Arizona Coyotes, delivering a grinding, low-scoring game to Rogers Arena on Thursday night.
The difference from last year? The Vancouver Canucks were able to eke out a win and move to within one point of first place in the Pacific Division.
Here are your highlights:
I was so startled to see Brandon Sutter's name back in the mix at Thursday's morning skate that I overlooked Travis Green's other lineup change. After testing out the idea of putting Jake Virtanen on his top line with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller at a practice during the last road trip, Green put the new deployment into action in a game situation after seeing his group shut out against Winnipeg on Tuesday — and it worked.
Shotgun Jake played hero with a wraparound that turned out to be the game-winning goal, with 4:11 left in the third period. Too bad that's after beer sales conclude at Rogers Arena...
Last season, the Canucks went 0-2-2 against the Coyotes, with both games at Rogers Arena ending in overtime losses. Arizona got the early edge on Thursday, too, when Oliver Ekman-Larsson choked off a Tyler Myers clearing attempt, then Taylor Hall fed Christian Dvorak in front of the net for the game's opening goal.
Jacob Markstrom didn't have much of a chance on that quick transition play. Otherwise, he was his usual stellar self, making 34 saves in yet another first-star performance.
There has been talk about Travis Green leaning too heavily on Markstrom, but I think it's OK. Even though his bye week holiday will be broken up by his All-Star Game appearance next weekend, he did get some time off last week thanks to Thatcher Demko's start in Florida, and will still get several days off the ice before he has to head to St. Louis That's even if he does play Saturday, as I expect he will, against San Jose.
The Canucks also have a reasonably light start to their schedule after the break, hosting St. Louis on Monday the 27th before starting a five-game road trip on Wednesday in San Jose. Then, they get two days off as they head out east, with weekend daytime back-to-back games against the Islanders and Hurricanes followed by Boston on Tuesday and finishing up in Minnesota on Thursday.
I'd expect Demko to get one of those back-to-backs. And I wouldn't be entirely surprised if he gets the Blues on the 27th. While the All-Star honour is terrific, those events are no joke for goaltenders.
By the way, if you missed it, Arizona coach Rick Tocchet has now officially been tapped to replace the fired Gerard Gallant in St. Louis next weekend. Too bad!
Jake's goal on Thursday was his 26th point of the season, a new career high for him. His 14 goals in 48 games are one shy of his previous best, collected last season.
After putting up 11 points in 13 games in December, Virtanen's production has taken a dip this month, where he has just three points in eight games. But all that preseason drama about him failing to meet his fitness targets seems like it happened a long time ago, doesn't it? He does appear to have gained more of Travis Green's trust as the season has rolled along. In addition to his promotion on Thursday, look at his average ice time, month by month:
He's also getting accused of reckless physical play again — for cross-checking Mikko Koivu in the face last weekend in Minnesota, and a sneaky elbow to the head of Mathieu Perrault on Tuesday in Winnipeg. He'll pay the price eventually if he keeps this up, but if opponents are shouting about Virtanen, that lines up a lot closer to the physical power forward type of player that Jim Benning thought he was getting when he drafted him sixth overall in 2014.
Vancouver's other goals on Thursday were scored by Bo Horvat — his 16th of the year, on the power play, and fourth on home ice — and Tanner Pearson — his 100th career NHL goal and team-leading fourth empty-netter of the year. As far as I'm concerned, there's no shame in that at all. Empty-net goals come when the team is winning, and are often crucial defensive plays in terms of thwarting opposition pressure.
It's always hard for west-coast players to get noticed out east, but Penguins fans are starting to debate why Pearson didn't click during his brief stop on their team last season...
Thursday's game may also be remembered as the night where Loui Eriksson's reputation in Vancouver turned around. He had just one shot on goal, and set up Pearson for the empty-netter for his seventh point of the year. But he also had two takeaways and a blocked shot — his strong play against Arizona came on the defensive side of the puck.
Meanwhile, fellow 2016 free-agent signee David Backes was placed on waivers on Friday by Boston. After dealing with plenty of serious concussion issues, Backes has struggled to find a role on a very good Boston team over the last couple of years.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, Calgary and Vegas also won on Thursday. So the Canucks will enjoy their day off in the Vancouver sunshine on Friday in third place in their division with 56 points. The Flames and Coyotes hold the top two spots, with 57, while the Golden Knights' 56 points puts them in the first wild-card spot with two more games played than Vancouver, and the Oilers are in the second spot at 55.
Who had the Central Division with three playoff spots and the Pacific with five this year? That's where we're at right now.
The chase pack:
Winnipeg: 54 pts
Chicago (!): 50 pts
Nashville: 49 pts
Minnesota: 48 pts
San Jose: 46 pts
Are the Blackhawks gunning to be this year's Blues? They've won their last three games and have moved up thanks to a 7-3-0 record in their last 10.
Just one game of significance on a light three-game schedule on Friday, with Winnipeg hosting Tampa Bay.