How the Canucks bent but didn’t break in key Game 3 win: 5 takeaways

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vancouver Canucks took a 2-1 lead in their first-round series against the Nashville Predators thanks to a smash-and-grab 2-1 victory on Broadway.

Overwhelmed in the first period and outplayed significantly at five-on-five throughout the game, Vancouver bent but didn’t break. They broke the game open thanks to J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser’s excellence on the power play.

It was a game that looked nothing like the first leg of this seven-game series back in Vancouver.

The Predators’ physicality and control of the boards permitted them to set up shop in Vancouver’s end of the rink for large swaths of the game. In fact, Vancouver didn’t get their first shot on goal until 13 minutes into the contest.

When Vancouver finally took that shot, however, they didn’t miss. It was a signature downhill wrist shot goal for Miller, taking advantage of a Boeser screen. The pair would combine again in the second period to pad Vancouver’s lead, thanks to a wonderful pass from Miller that Boeser converted in the blue paint.

At this time of year they don’t award style points. They don’t ask if it was pretty. It doesn’t matter whether Nashville’s forecheck played, or who controlled the game, or how heavily the Predators pressed in the final five minutes of the contest.

What mattered is that the Canucks won 2-1 and lead once more in the series and are now two wins from advancing to the Conference Semifinal round. Game 4 goes Sunday, with the Canucks having earned an opportunity to take a stranglehold in the series.

Here are five things we learned from Vancouver’s pivotal Game 3 victory.

Canucks weather the Predators’ early storm

Playing in front of their raucous fans, the Predators were all over the Canucks to start the game. Nashville was heavy and physical on Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek right from puck drop. Nashville won most of the 50/50 board battles, decisively controlled puck possession and had a couple of dangerous early chances, including a rush look that deflected off Elias Lindholm’s skate right onto Casey DeSmith and a Ryan O’Reilly shot from the inner slot that just missed the net. Then came the Dakota Joshua boarding penalty.

By the end of the period, the Canucks had taken three penalties and hadn’t generated a single five-on-five shot on goal. Miraculously, they entered the first intermission with a 1-0 lead.

Why? Vancouver’s penalty kill was terrific. Players like Ian Cole, Nikita Zadorov and Elias Pettersson made smart plays to break up plays down low and along the side boards. Nashville couldn’t cleanly break in and set up against the Canucks’ compact form at the defensive blue line after clearances. Casey DeSmith didn’t have to make too many saves but was sharp when needed.

Miller sniped a goal from the left circle on the power play, with Boeser screening, as Vancouver scored on its first shot for the 12th time this season.

Weathering the storm and entering the second period up 1-0, despite Nashville’s territorial control and three power-play opportunities, was a huge win for the Canucks.

J.T. Miller’s all-around impact and the Canucks’ third-period defending

Remember last season when the Canucks couldn’t hold onto a lead to save their life?

Those days are long behind us. Under Rick Tocchet, the Canucks have become a well-oiled machine at managing leads. Vancouver is comfortable slowing the game to a low-event pace when needed. They consistently get to centre ice cleanly and dump pucks in with no fuss. They apply up-ice pressure without losing their shape. They pack the neutral zone and prevent offensive rushes through the middle of the ice. They clean up loose pucks from the blue line area defensively.

In Game 3, they even looked as comfortable as a team can in a five-on-three situation, when Boeser and Zadorov’s penalties gave Nashville a partial two-man advantage. It got dicey and nerve-racking toward the end once Luke Evangelista scored with less than four minutes left, with Bridgestone Arena buzzing, but the Canucks held on to steal the game.

Miller deserves a shoutout as one of Vancouver’s most reliable two-way forwards in Game 3 too. Early in the third period, he sent Boeser for a rush chance that hit the post. On a later shift, he hustled on the back check to steal the puck from a Nashville player leading a rush. He was easily Vancouver’s best forward of the game.

Brock Boeser at the net front

There is very little happening in this series and very little space to operate at five-on-five.

Even as Nashville controlled the first period ably, for example, they still struggled to direct shots and scoring chances at Casey DeSmith, relatively speaking, at even strength.

Where this game turned, where Vancouver broke it open, was on the power play. The club’s first power-play unit, dominant in stretches this season, but cool in the second half of the campaign, hadn’t been heard from in this series until Friday night.

The club’s lack of success five-on-four prompted a subtle but ultimately impactful change to Vancouver’s alignment. At practice on Thursday, Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet dropped Conor Garland from the first power-play unit, replacing him with Elias Lindholm. The tweak created a key advantage over how Vancouver had been aligned previously: It moved Boeser to the net front, with Lindholm occupying the bumper.

And it’s Boeser’s work at the net front that was essential in turning this game, and perhaps this series, in Vancouver’s favour. Boeser was the screener on Vancouver’s first goal, a seeing eye downhill wrist shot by Miller that beat Predators starter Juuse Saros cleanly.

Then Boeser managed to get his stick loose, and onto a perfect down low feed from Miller as Vancouver wrested full control of the contest in the second period.

Given how evenly matched these teams appear to be at even strength, and how power-play opportunities tend to disappear the longer a series goes on, this is a great time for Vancouver’s power play to get going. It’s also a useful deterrent for the team to keep in their back pocket, especially with the way the Predators have targeted Quinn Hughes physically.

Canucks’ blue line shuts the door defensively

Vancouver did an excellent job of insulating DeSmith defensively, particularly the club’s second and third defensive pairs. The Canucks’ slot coverage was terrific, especially with preventing backdoor east-west passes.

Time after time, Nashville tried to find a backdoor tap-in pass in the offensive zone. On each occasion, the Canucks’ defense made sure it didn’t get through.

In the second period, for example, the Predators had an offensive zone draw with the Filip Forsberg line on the ice after a Canucks icing. Forsberg had the puck down low in an attacking area after the draw, but Myers’ skate blocked his centring pass. He recollected the puck and shot from the high slot, only for Myers to get his stick in the lane, deflect it out of play and allow Vancouver to make a change. Vancouver’s knack for clogging east-west passing lanes was also a big reason why the Predators couldn’t translate their strong territorial control in the first period into a high volume of Grade-A chances against DeSmith.

Nikita Zadorov, Carson Soucy, Ian Cole and Myers were heavy down low, broke plays up with their long reach and made it difficult for Nashville to get to the inside offensively. And they did it at both even strength and on the penalty kill.

Casey DeSmith holds steady

On Friday night, DeSmith came up with the big save time and time again, stopping 30 of 31 shots in the 2-1 victory.

Vancouver’s defensive zone coverage was nearly spotless, but the Predators offensive attack — as you’d expect, given the rate at which this Nashville team tends to generate scoring chances — still tested DeSmith with increasing regularity as time ticked off the clock in the third period. He made several saves on five-alarm scoring chances, robbing O’Reilly in particular on multiple instances.

It wasn’t just a solid performance. DeSmith was great on Friday night. Effective, stable and stout. It took a goal on a play that was a 50/50 to challenge for interference to beat him.

Beyond the results, DeSmith looked far more composed and calm in his crease on Friday night than he seemed to be in Game 2. Very few rebounds were spilled by Vancouver’s backup, and gone were those moments where he made the save but didn’t seem to know where the puck was thereafter.

This was DeSmith in control. This was the sort of confidence-inspiring performance Vancouver required from their backup netminder, who is going to be counted on to win this series in Demko’s absence.

(Photo of Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson celebrating Boeser’s second-period goal: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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