Vancouver Canucks 2 at Toronto Maple Leafs 3 – 2022-11-12 recap

This game wasn’t close except on the scoresheet, but the Canucks had a late breakaway, a late powerplay, and an extended sequence in the empty net. They played well-enough to win, but you usually do in this league.

I was upset I wasn’t able to get this recap out Saturday night immediately after the game. These are the two teams I follow closely, probably more closely than anybody that isn’t affiliated with the team, and I have roots with both. I grew up a Canucks fan, and worked as an analyst with the Maple Leafs for eight years.

I watched Roberto Luongo, Henrik Sedin, and Daniel Sedin for years and get enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame this weekend. I believe that you learn most about the game from its greats, and seeing the things that those players did differently gave me greater appreciations for the positions they play.

With Luongo, I learned that a goalie’s positioning and control were more important than athleticism. Luongo rarely made sprawling athletic saves. The best Luongo stop I can remember him making was in the first round of the 2007 playoff series against Dallas, when Stu Barnes took a centering pass from Jere Lehtinen and was wide open in the slot and got a great shot away, about two feet off the ice. Rather than making a spectacular windmill save as many goalies at the time would have done, Luongo made himself big, and rather than catching the puck, moreso fell on it. I learned from watching Luongo over the years that highlight-reel saves are not necessarily the indicator of a strong goalie, and that if a goalie is close to stopping a shot and it trickles through, it isn’t an indicator of a weak goalie. It seemed like Luongo got a piece of equipment on every puck thrown at him at the height of his powers.

The Sedin twins redefined how the offensive zone works. They not only won all those puck battles along the offensive boards and wore out opposing defenders with their conditioning and cycling, but their creativity and innovation set them apart. The twins were never the fastest players and never had real good shots, but their offensive instincts were unmatched by anybody. I think the Sedins left a larger imprint on modern offensive systems than anybody realizes. They understood the offensive zone, using bank passes to open lanes and opposing defenders as decoys. I still remember Henrik passing a puck right onto Alex Burrows’ tape through the legs of goaltender Antti Niemi in the Conference Finals. I’ll never forget the reaction my friends and I experienced the night of April 10 2010, when Daniel Sedin scored his hat-trick goal between the legs, set up by a between the legs tip pass by Henrik, who somehow knew where Daniel was. The Sedins may not have invented the offensive zone slap pass, but they used it to success when nobody else was, and you can see that same shot attempted a few times in any game you watch today. The Sedins also integrated all five attackers into the offence, a trait that good offensive teams have.

Auston Matthews will make the Hall of Fame one day as well, and that will close another chapter of my life. Maybe John Tavares or Mitch Marner will if this core puts it together and goes on a couple of signature playoff runs. I don’t know how I’ll feel if they ever do, if I was with the team for some truly horrible feelings in the playoffs but left and the team put it together.

Anyway, I’m not a good enough writer to express my thoughts on players like that. I want to talk about the game on this website and only the game, and try to avoid bringing up the bullshit or narratives surrounding either team.

So I’ll break that rule as well and push back on two things I heard from Sportsnet colour commentator Craig Simpson in the first period:

Following Luke Schenn’s assist on Bo Horvat’s goal, Simpson pointed out that the Canucks have the 5th-highest scoring defence in the league, spun into a positive about how well the Canucks move the puck, rather than an indictment of how the Canucks use the offensive zone. The goal of a hockey team is to score goals, not for your defence to get points, and the Canucks, as of this writing, are 19th in the NHL in goals for per 60 minutes at 5v5. Wherever Luke Schenn ranks in terms of points leaguewide for defencemen, I can assure you that he is not among the best players in creating offence. The Canucks back-end has been awful at facilitating offence all season, regardless of how many of Schenn’s weak wristers are deflected in or find their way through a screen, or bounce to a forward.

Earlier, Simpson had told me that “goals against have been a problem for both teams”, which is factual in that goals against are a problem for any team. It’s never a good thing to allow a goal, so every individual goal against is, indeed, a problem. However, the implication is that the teams are roughly equal defensively and I can assure you they are not. I watch both quite closely, and, again, as of this writing, one of the teams is 10th in the NHL in all situations goals against and the other is 30th.

I bring up both points because they’re instructive of what you can miss if you imagine a statistic without context or by letting feeling guide your belief. One of the values of Hockey Analytics, capitalized and in italics, is that it allows us to better understand what’s important and not and to give us a greater appreciation of the things that really matter.

Which is partly why I put together this website anyway, and track a lot of data for it. I’m learning about hockey and I wanted to use similar data to what Sportlogiq provides NHL teams. Without access to Sportlogiq, I’m stuck hand counting roughly 800 events throughout the game, roughly 2.5 times as much as the NHL does, so that I can better understand what happened as if I were still with a team.

An example would be in this game: it was 2-0 for Vancouver in the first period and Twitter was, predictably, a mess. (I’m not usually on Twitter during games because I’m tracking, but since I was sick and confined to the couch, I stuck it out) We’ve seen early multi-goal leads fall with regularity in this NHL season, and one thing that has interested in me is the types of games that regularly turn into comebacks. At that point in the game (well, I didn’t have the data until a few days later), the score was 2-0, but the 5v5 scoring chances were 5-1 for the Leafs and the zone entry attempts were 23-13 for the Leafs (the shot counter on the scorebug, the only thing the casual fan can really use to gauge the flow of play, was something like 7-6 Canucks at the time, which was not an indicator of how the game was flowing). I cracked a joke to Thom Drance, who praised the Canucks effort in the first period, but this was really a case of the Canucks getting a couple of saves and the Leafs not. A loss to the Canucks at home after a poor offensive showing the previous night against Pittsburgh would have been a disaster in Toronto, but these are the kinds of games that, were I still with the team, I’d have been pretty confident that we’d be able to mount a comeback.

And they did. The Leafs didn’t come out in the second with a renewed sense of urgency. They’re just a better team, and they held the puck for extended stretches of the game. At one point in the third period, down by a goal, the Canucks were able to enter the Leafs zone just once during a four-minute stretch. They had one brief fourth-line shift spent in the Leafs zone and were otherwise stuck trying to beat the Toronto forecheck and break the puck out.

The Leafs quickly mounted a comeback, took a 3-2 lead, and could have easily broken the game open and pulled away, but they didn’t, and the Canucks had enough scoring chances later on in the game to not only tie the game or take the lead, but they also didn’t. Sometimes hockey is easy to explain.

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