That was an ugly one for the Vancouver Canucks.
The team was entering the latter half of their road trip on Tuesday afternoon, facing off against the undefeated Buffalo Sabres at Keybank Center. The Canucks, who were coming off their first regulation loss of the season against Detroit on Saturday night, had only collected three of a possible six points so far, and were itching to get back into the win column.
Cue the disappointment.
The Canucks were able to get on the board first, thanks to a hard-fought puck battle behind the net from Tanner Pearson that led to Bo Horvat‘s first tally of the season. Kyle Okposo responded less than three minutes later, but the Canucks were able to recapture the lead near the end of the opening frame with a Justin Dowling tip-in that was redirected past 40-year-old netminder Craig Anderson.
The Canucks came out extremely flat in the second period, only registering 10 shots on goal, but still managed to enter the final frame deadlocked at 2-2. Unfortunately, the nightmare continued in the third period.
Buffalo continued to create high-danger scoring chances in Vancouver’s end right from the get-go and it seemed like the Canucks, particularly their blueline, weren’t able to come up with a solution to stop the bleeding.
The Sabres quickly capitalized on their glorious opportunities, notching two more goals just 23 seconds apart, both as a direct result of juicy rebounds and poor overall defensive coverage. Rasmus Asplund hammered the final nail in the coffin with an empty-net goal late in the third period.
Stating that it’s been a difficult road trip so far for the Canucks would be an understatement. Yes, they still have two more games to go before returning home, but the team is still grasping to establish any sort of identity, especially over the past 72 hours.
Without further adieu, here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s 5-2 loss in Buffalo:
The Miller-Podkolzin experiment
Could J.T. Miller be our next third-line centre? The short answer is no.
The experiment started during Monday’s morning skate in Detroit, when Miller was spotted wearing a bottom-six white practice jersey. As we all know, the 28-year-old does have experience down the middle from last season, where he filled in for the injured Elias Pettersson on the team’s top line. However, that move came at a time when the Canucks were noticeably desperate for centermen, and head coach Travis Green definitely didn’t want to put Brandon Sutter or Travis Boyd in that position (for the sake of the standings, of course).
Nonetheless, Green felt like this would be the best change for Miller and the team, who occupied the 3C role on Tuesday night, with Dowling and Vasily Podkolzin on his flanks.
The newly-formed third line came out strong to start the first period, particularly Miller and Podkolzin. Both forwards have the hockey IQ to make creative, high-level plays at both ends of the ice, and are able to use their size and physicality to win puck battles, especially against the boards.
It looked like Green’s new line combination was a stroke of genius early on, with the trio able to enter the offensive zone well en route to Dowling’s first as a Canuck. Podkolzin didn’t register an assist on the play, but there’s a good chance the goal wouldn’t have occurred if it wasn’t for his intelligent spin move at the blueline to create more space for himself and his teammates.
Podkolzin finished the night with one SOG over 12 minutes of ice time, the highest of his NHL career so far.
Green kept the Miller-Podkolzin-Dowling line together for most of the night, which ended up being one of the team’s downfalls, particularly in the final frame. The trio finished the contest with a combined rating of minus five, which included Buffalo’s fourth goal that exposed their defensive inconsistencies as a unit.
There’s no doubt that having three capable centres in Pettersson, Horvat and Miller is extremely beneficial for the Canucks in the long run, especially when comparing the other middleman situation for other teams in the league.
However, at the end of the day, Green needs to dress the line combinations that will give his club the greatest chance of winning, night in and night out, and placing Miller in the bottom-six is not going to provide that outcome on a consistent basis just yet.