Taking apart the Toronto Maple Leafs used to be leisurely Saturday night for the Vancouver Canucks but the times have changed and this weekend’s match-up will be a doozy for all involved.
Over the past 13 seasons, the Vancouver Canucks have only lost once to the Maple Leafs at home. But these are the new Maple Leafs and as sick as we all may be of hearing about it, they are the genuine article. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and company are a legitimate contender in the East, and Vancouver will have to have its A game against the revamped Buds.
But this is a Vancouver Canucks team riding the high from its most inspired game of the season in Nashville on Thursday. Going up against arguably the best team in hockey, the Canucks could have folded when they were down 1-0, 2-1, and then 3-2. But they just kept coming, and scratched out a heroic 5-3 victory.
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Saturday’s duel with the Leafs has all the makings of a true spectacle. From Derek Dorsett‘s emotional farewell, to Daniel Sedin‘s 1000th point, to the arrival of Nikolay Goldobin, to Brock Boeser‘s taking the rookie scoring lead, the Canucks have a lot of momentum. But the Leafs have run roughshod over western Canada and you know the crew at CBC would love to see it continue.
So many storylines, so little time.
Vancouver Canucks (12-10-4)
Last weekend, the Hockey Night in Canada panel was asked who should win the Calder Trophy and the only opinion that really matters is, of course, that of Elliotte Friedman. To Canucks fans dismay, Friedman was on team Clayton Keller, and subsequently some members of the Vancouver media made it their mission to convert Friedman to the Brock Boeser Fan Club.
It turns out, Brock didn’t need their help. Boeser has been a force, and was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November. He hasn’t just been good; he has been lights out. In Thursday’s win over Nashville, Boeser had two goals and an assist, and both of his goals were beauties; one a snipe from the slot, the other an EA Sports deke on a wonderful set up by Goldobin.
Boeser now leads all NHL rookies in points, despite having played fewer games, and what a showcase for Hockey Night in Canada; will they rain on his parade? Oh they might try. But this show will go on.
Who’s on Ooffence
Daniel Sedin’s 1000th point will certainly be a talking point this weekend, but it’s worth noting that he also notched his 1001st. The Sedin line, subject of much discussion this season, is finding its groove with a rejuvenated Loui Eriksson. They have played some of their best hockey of this campaign on the recent road trip, and it seems they are finally taking advantage of the extra breathing space of being the second line instead of the first.
I predicted last year that the Sedins would bounce back from a rough 2016-17, as for the first time in over a decade they would be seeing weaker opposition. Drawing the toughest defenders every night can wear you down – and it was noticeably affecting the 36-year old Sedins last year. But now that the Bo Horvat line draws top billing, the Sedins have more room and, recently, they’ve been converting that into consistent production.
Meanwhile, there is a new kid in town and it’s about time. Nikolay Goldobin joined the Canucks on the road trip through New York, and after watching for a couple of nights in the pressbox, he drew into the lineup on Thursday and made a palpable difference. Goldy’s passing and playmaking was on full display, as he set up several grade A chances including the game-winning goal. He also managed to get some decent shots at the net himself, and was, for the most part, responsible on both sides of the puck.
Who’s on defence
The Canucks are still without their least effective defender in Erik Gudbranson, and this continues to mean playing time for youngsters Troy Stecher, Ben Hutton, and Derrick Pouliot. While they have each had a few shaky games, for the most part they have held their own and it would be a tough call to take any one of them out with Gudbranson returns.
So pick up the phone, Trader Jim. We need a return on Guddy and we need it soon. The natural 7th defender is Pouliot, because he is the newest acquisition, but the truth is that he has on many nights been Vancouver’s best defender. Taking him out of the lineup would be a foolish move, just as the kid is starting to really find his game; a game which, it needs be said, has a mile higher upside than Gudbranson’s.
And there is still Philip Holm waiting in the wings. He was called up but hasn’t seen the ice yet, but Holm has been Utica’s best defender and comes in with a strong pedigree and looks NHL-ready. At 25 years old, he is well-positioned to be part of the Canucks rebuild, so space needs to be cleared. I wonder if Chiarelli is taking offers on the Nuge…
Who’s in net
The goaltending deployment in Vancouver has been a little confusing. Early in the season, it seemed head coach Travis Green was going to match his goalies to their opposition, and the system worked pretty well. But somewhere between Anders Nilsson’s child being born and a long road trip out East, the system broke down.
Jacob Markstrom got a string of starts in which he continued to be okay. Came up with a few big saves, to be sure, but almost always let in at least one softie. If this was his moment to seize hold of the number one job, he needed a tighter grip on Excalibur.
And so, in Brooklyn, the torch was passed to Anders Nilsson. He didn’t have a great game against the Islanders but, frankly, no one did. Granted a second chance in Nashville, he made the most of it, playing a key role in the Canucks’ big victory. On the strength of that emotional game, Nilsson has to have earned another start on Saturday against the Leafs.
Toronto Maple Leafs (17-9-1)
At any given time in Vancouver, most people are sick of hearing about the Toronto Maple Leafs. The problem is compounded – but perhaps more forgivable – this year because the Leafs really have a good team. In my many years of western alienation, it never occurred to me that we might actually have to deal with the Toronto media covering a good team.
But there is no denying that Babcock’s Buds are for real. Beyond just the big names of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the supporting cast is getting it done. Veteran Patrick Marleau has ten goals, Leafs stalwart Nazem Kadri continues his solid play, Connor Brown is adding secondary scoring, and Nikita Zaitsev is hitting his stride.
Still, the big three have had some setbacks this year – Marner only has two goals – and the Leafs only beat Edmonton on Thursday with the help of a bizarre own goal by Kris Russell. So they aren’t yet the juggernaut that the FAN590 would have you believe, and if the Vancouver Canucks can ride the momentum from Nashville, it should be a good match.
Who’s on offense
Before their game in Edmonton, much ado was made of Auston Matthews’ sniffly nose. Yep, the poor guy had a cold but, warrior that he is, he played through the sniffles and helped his team earn the W. It may be my own fault for setting up shop in Hogtown, but the reporting of Auston Matthews’ every breath and footfall gets to be a bit much.
All the same, you can’t deny that he’s a unique talent, and as he goes, so too will the Leafs. His team-leading 26 points are over a point-per-game pace. So, yeah, he’s good. But the Leafs offense has also been carried by players like Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, and Mike Babcock prides himself on being able to roll his lines.
The real question mark in Toronto seems to be William Nylander and, of course, he shouldn’t be a question mark. Nylander is a formidable talent, and all-world player whose natural offensive gifts should be setting him apart from many of his peers. But Canadian markets dominated by old school attitudes can be tough on talented young European players, and Nylander has felt the heat in the media and from his coach.
As far as the Vancouver Canucks are concerned, yes, please continue to use Nylander on the fourth line. This bodes well for us.
Who’s on defence
The Leafs’ back end is shaping up well, with a nice balance of offensive-minded mobile puck movers and steady defensive players. No one player stands out, but Morgan Rielly probably deserves the most attention, having notched 17 points. The highest Canuck defender is at 9.
Jake Gardiner is the lightning rod in Toront, but he is widely considered to have settled into a solid defender this season, and with the veteran presence of Ron Hainsey the Leafs are typically tidy in their own zone.
But this is an offensive minded team, and that’s why the goaltender has taken on such meaning in Toronto.
Who’s in net
Who else? Frederik Andersen has started 23 of 27 games for the Leafs this year and a huge part of their game plan is for him to make big saves. This may be the weakest link in the Leafs chain, because while Andersen is a good goaltender, he’s not elite. His .918 sv% is good, but it’s a long way from Quick, Crawford, or Bobrovsky.
He has also never been expected to take on this great a portion of the starts – his highest previous total was 66 last year and he was showing signs of fatigue in the Leafs’ playoff series. The Canucks should try to keep him busy and hope that he is caught off balance.
5-4 Canucks. Being a goaltender will suck at Rogers Arena. The Leafs will be put in their place, losing a back and forth shootout to the Canucks. Matthews and Nylander may score, but Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, and the Sedins are going to ride the momentum from Nashville. HNIC is going to anger Canucks fans when we are forced to watch Ron Maclean’s garbage in place of the ceremony for Daniel’s 1000th point.
3-0 Canucks. What better way to kick off the Christmas season than a matchup between the Canucks and Leafs? The Canucks start the Christmas giving by putting pucks in the net. Boeser, Goldy, and Eriksson score! Matthews gets shut down, and Anders Nilsson gets the start and shutout.
4-3 Canucks. They’ve only lost one home game to Toronto dating back to 2004 so I don’t see it ending here. Brock Boeser and Loui Eriksson stay hot with a goal each.
5-2 Canucks. It’s hard for Canucks fans to believe that there is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, but it is worth fighting for. After an emotional win in Nashville, the team comes home and does us all a solid by showing up the Leafs for the national audience. Goldy will have another good game, and Boeser will do us proud, but Daniel Sedin will be the hero scoring twice on the night he is honoured.