Vancouver Canucks

Saturday Night Heat inside look at a Pacific Division tilt at Rogers Arena

February 14, 2020

Eric Thompson - @Thompsonalysis

There's a term in professional wrestling - "pop". It's a type of cheer, an instantaneous crowd reaction. It's indicative of a few things, but mainly, it's an indication of how invested the audience is in the "babyface" - the good guy.

I'm no stranger to crowds, wrestling and hockey alike. And one of the loudest pops I've ever heard came when Tanner Pearson scored against the Calgary Flames about thirty seconds into their divisional matchup with the Vancouver Canucks this past Saturday night.

One second of play later, I heard an even louder one as J.T. Miller dropped the gloves with noted pest extraordinaire Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk won the bout, but Vancouver didn't care - the message had been sent.

We're five years out from the last Canucks playoff appearance, and many Vancouver fans were initially hesitant to get excited for a strong start to the season. But now it's February, the Canucks are first in a competitive Pacific Division, and Rogers Arena is teeming with excitement, fervor, and noise. 

So is Vancouver. Walking around the city, especially near the rink, it's hard to go a block without spotting a blue and green jersey or ball cap. The hesitancy is gone. Vancouver is all in.

"The past couple games, really the whole year, the fans have been terrific," said Brock Boeser. "They're loud every game, they give us momentum, and I think it's a big part of why we're having success at home."

The Canucks had won 6 of 7 coming into the month of February, taking down the reigning Stanley Cup Champions in the process. The subsequent three-game skid did little to stifle the enthusiasm in Vancouver on Saturday night as the Canucks took on the Flames with the opportunity to put some more daylight between themselves and one of their divisional rivals.

"It's a huge game," Chris Tanev agreed on Saturday morning. "They're a few points behind us, and it's crunch time now. All these points are huge, especially when you're playing a divisional rival."

It certainly didn't hurt that it was a Hockey Day in Canada tilt between two historic rivals, but this year's Pacific Division race is one of the tightest ever at this point in the season, and it feels like anything can happen.

"I don't think it happens very often if you go back through the history of the league," head coach Travis Green said. "It's exciting, that's for sure."

The occasion wasn't lost on the fans inside the rink either. The atmosphere at Rogers Arena was nothing short of electric, and the players responded in kind early on in the crucial divisional matchup.

Jacob Markstrom's first save of the night, a routine stop by all accounts, was met with a disproportionate roar of approval. The fans were ready to erupt for anything - and with a team this exciting, it'd be hard to blame them. Markstrom drew even louder cheers with a flurry of saves on Noah Hanifin and Tobias Rieder in tight.

Of course, any all-Canadian matchup will have its fair share of travelling fans, and they made their presence known when Derek Ryan tied the game before Miller and Tkachuk were even out of the box, and again in the back half of the opening frame.

Not to be outdone by the visiting fans, the home crowd popped for a beautiful move from Bo Horvat that resulted in a Rittich save, and an Alex Edler hit that knocked Rieder off his feet.

There was palpable disappointment in the arena when the Canucks failed to score on what was otherwise a fantastic powerplay, but a slick skate-to-stick-to-twine move from Adam Gaudette set that right, ending the period on a positive note.

But the best crowd pops build, like a crescendo. They are the culmination of a series of moments, the release that follows anticipation. As the Canucks built up sustained pressure, missing several golden chances to equalize, the crowd grew anxious, but excited. The play traveled up the other end of the rink, where the Flames got in a few chances of their own. Markstrom covered up a puck that was whacked at by a Calgary forward, and the fiery Vancouver goaltender responded with a shove and a whack of his own, falling upon the player and earning a pop for the ages. Vancouver exploded with overwhelming, rapturous applause for their All-Star netminder. The passion the city has for the club and its players was on full display as Rogers Arena shook with excitement and appreciation for one of the biggest parts of the team's success in 2020.

Another wrestling term I like is "heat". Heat is another type of crowd reaction, one of annoyance, animosity, and contempt. It isn't quite as instantaneous as the pop - it's more a status, a measure of hatred built up over time.

Milan Lucic has nuclear heat - that was more than apparent when he shoved Antoine Roussel to the ice after another scrum in front of Markstrom's crease. The crowd was already hot - after all, it was a then-tight scoreline in a divisional matchup between two historical rivals. Lucic is a heel, through and through. He's there to gain heat and use it to his advantage and he plays the role well, with a bleach-blonde look he seems to have adopted just to lean into the character a little bit harder.

Conversely, Jacob Markstrom seemed to be the babyface combatant in the evening's main event - he was at the centre of most of the game's pops, for his big saves just as much as his involvement in the rough stuff. But the babyface can't always win. Sometimes the heel gets one over on him, and it was Lucic himself who delivered the 4-2 dagger to put Saturday's contest out of reach for the division leaders. The boos (muddled with cries of "Looch!" from Calgary's fans, no doubt) rivalled some of the loudest cheers of the night for decibel level. And that's as good of a measure of passion as any - these fans are invested in this season and this playoff race, they care, and they do NOT like the Flames.

Chris Tanev has been a part of the Canucks for a long time, and knows how important the Vancouver fans can be. "If you're down a goal or two in the third and the fans get going, they give you that little bit of energy you otherwise wouldn't have."

In a tight race like the one the Canucks find themselves in, that energy could be the boost Vancouver needs to get over the finish line.