The Vancouver Canucks continued their road trip on Monday night with a stop in Chicago to face off against the Blackhawks.
Prior to puck drop, the big story for Canuck fans was the healthy scratch of rookie Vasili Podkolzin. Podkolzin hasn’t been incredible by any means this season, with 10 points in 42 games, but as pointed out by Canucks Army’s Chris Faber on twitter, Podkolzin is second on the Canucks in even strength goals. You’d think that a team that has struggled to score goals at 5 on 5, especially recently, would place the former tenth overall pick in the lineup, but Bruce Boudreau had other ideas.
Drawing in for Podkolzin on the fourth line was Justin Dowling. In what was his 21st game of the season, the 31-year-old centered Nils Höglander and Alex Chiasson. Also playing his first game in a while was goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Halak missed a number of games due to the NHL’s COVID protocol, with his last game coming on December 30th which was a 2-1 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
After a rather boring, and lackluster effort in Calgary on Saturday night’s 1-0 overtime loss to the Flames, the Canucks came to the United Center prepared to entertain. Right from the opening faceoff, Vancouver outworked their opponents. Boudreau started his favourite third line of Tyler Motte, Juho Lammikko, and Mathew Highmore, consistently matching them up with Chicago’s top line throughout the first half of the game. Highmore and Motte both previously played for the Blackhawks.
The game had a good pace early, with both teams appearing spirited. After having just one shot in the first period against Calgary, the Canucks fired the first four shots of the game on Blackhawks netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Vancouver had the plenty of the scoring chances early, with the majority being generated by the bottom six.
Over halfway through the opening frame, the Canucks’ fourth line put together an impressive shift, resulting in a Dowling net drive being directed into the corner by Fleury. Höglander came flying in to pressure the Blackhawks defence and forced a turnover which was collected by Dowling, before he set up Chiasson for his fifth goal of the season. For Chiasson, playing in his 600th NHL game, the goal was his first even-strength tally of the season. Though Höglander was not given an assist on the play, the struggling Swede’s hard work along the boards created the goal.
The two teams traded powerplays before the end of the first, but neither were successful. Heading into the first intermission, the Canucks had been the better team but needed to continue pushing.
Early in the second period, Vancouver found sustained offensive zone pressure. Luke Schenn threw two shots on from the point which were tossed aside by Fleury, but Chicago couldn’t clear the zone. Finally, Quinn Hughes surveyed the zone from the left side, and tossed the puck on net as he neared the goal line. Brock Boeser, who had read the play from the very beginning and moved himself into excellent position, tipped the puck past Fleury to give the Canucks a 2-0 lead.
Vancouver was handed a powerplay seconds later but were unable to capitalize. With the man advantage, the team struggled to gain the zone, but once they did chances were generated with ease.
At even strength, the Canucks were playing cautious, but calculated hockey. Neither team saw excellent scoring chances. However, Vancouver was able to create quality opportunities by capitalizing on Chicago’s expensive, but weak defense. One of these chances came later in the period, when J.T. Miller was handed an in-zone breakaway by Chicago’s Caleb Jones. Miller ran out of room by making one too many moves, but drew a penalty on the play.
The Canucks powerplay was short-lived, as Miller broke the stick of Blackhawks forward Brandon Hagel just over one minute in. The 4-on-4 was tame, and the Canucks ensuing penalty kill went smoothly as Vancouver killed their 13th straight penalty.
In the final frame, the two teams traded chances but the Canucks continued to out chance their opponents thanks to responsible defensive play. Elias Pettersson in particular wasn’t extremely noticeable in this game, but what was clearly on display was his improving 200-foot game.
Halak continued his impressive return, controlling the play whenever he could and bailing out a Canucks defense that was playing particularly aggressive. However with just seven minutes remaining in the game, the Blackhawks began to ramp up the pressure and began to tire out the Vancouver skaters. Patrick Kane circled the Vancouver zone before teeing up defenseman Connor Murphy on the left side. Murphy hammered the puck through Halak, bringing his team within one with plenty of time left.
Though it was a weak goal from the veteran goaltender Halak, he shut it down from there. Thanks to a sloppy change from Chicago which resulted in a too many men penalty, the Canucks were able to slow a Blackhawks team that was feeding off of the newly restored life in the building.
Again the Vancouver powerplay was unable to finish despite chances, and the Blackhawks took it the other way, pulling Fleury for the extra attacker with one minute remaining. The opposition laid on the pressure, working the puck around with skill and searching for openings. A Kane shot from the point was blocked in front, and pounced on by Schenn who fired the puck all the way down the ice and into the open cage, icing the game.
The Canucks walked away with a 3-1 victory, making them 2-0-1 on their current road trip which concludes tomorrow night in Nashville. Halak made 20 saves in his return to the team, looking like a true veteran when the pressure mounted. This was the 36-year-olds ninth game of the season, leaving one more until he receives his performance bonus of $1.5 million.
Schenn had one of his best games of the season on the back end, and tied the Canucks franchise record for hits in a game with 12. He previously set the record back in 2019.
With the win, Vancouver returns to above .500 once again, improving to a record of 20-19-6.
The Canucks get back in action on Tuesday as they wrap up their road trip in Nashville to take on Roman Josi and the Predators. Puck drop is at 5:00 PM.