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Bo Horvat is putting the Canucks on his back in the playoffs

“If anyone’s made for playoff hockey, it’s Bo Horvat.”
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Bo Horvat has dominated the first two games of the Vancouver Canucks' series against the St. Louis Blues. photo: Dan Toulgoet

In Junior, they called him The Ox. Canucks fans have taken to calling him Bull. His head coach called him a horse.

While Bo Horvat will never be your beast of burden, there’s a reason he racks up nicknames based on big, strong animals that can carry a heavy load. The Canucks captain is carrying the Canucks in their first round series against the St. Louis Blues and is the biggest reason they’re up 2-0 against the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Horvat opened the scoring in both games, including a gorgeous, highlight reel goal in Game 2. In each game, he scored again, a vital insurance goal in Game 1 when the Blues were pushing back in the third period, and an even more vital overtime winner in Game 2. Combined with the qualifying round, Horvat now leads the playoffs in goalscoring with 6 goals.

“You want to get up for the big games, you want to be a difference maker, especially this time of year,” said Horvat. “You’re playing the Stanley Cup champs, it’s easy to get up for. These are the games you want to win, these are the moments you want to be in.”

After Game 2, head coach Travis Green, whose praise in postgame interviews is usually limited to, “he was good,” was much more effusive when talking about Horvat.

“He’s playing phenomenal right now. The last three games are as good as I’ve seen him,” said Green. “He’s a big body that can skate, if anyone’s made for playoff hockey, it’s Bo Horvat, and he’s definitely on top of his game right now.”

“Big body” is right. Horvat is just 6’0”, far from the tallest player on the Canucks, but he’s one of the heaviest, listed at 215 lbs. He got his “Ox” nickname in Junior from his coach Mark Hunter, who said he was as strong as an ox, and he’s only grown stronger in the years since. He’s parlayed that strength into a powerful — and technically beautiful — skating stride that makes him a monster for opposing teams to deal with off the rush.

That skating didn’t come naturally for Horvat, whose skating was questioned when he was drafted. He developed his skating through long hours of hard work with power skating coach Kathy McLlwain, but Horvat has always been dedicated to constantly improving every aspect of his game.

“I know he wasn’t happy with his game in the first couple [games against the Wild],” said Green. “He sat and watched video with Manny [Malhotra] for a little bit. The good thing about Bo is you can be honest with him, he can be honest with his game.”

It’s that honesty in addressing his faults that has made Horvat as good as he is today, but the biggest improvement hasn’t come offensively. Even in his rookie year he was showing flashes of the playoff performer he would become. Against the Calgary Flames in 2015, the last time the Canucks were in the playoffs, Horvat had some similar rushes up the ice, dangling around defenders to get scoring chances.

No, the biggest improvement has come at the defensive end of the ice, where Green can trust Horvat with the most difficult matchups.

“He’s strong on the puck, he does a lot of things that a team needs to win,” said Green. “He’s playing his best when he’s playing a 200-foot game.”

Against the Blues, Horvat — along with linemates Tanner Pearson and Loui Eriksson — has matched up against the top line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues’ top line has been kept quiet on Horvat’s watch. While Schwartz has a couple goals — one at 6-on-5 that went off his knee and another when Horvat wasn’t on the ice — Schenn’s impact has been limited to a few hits, while Tarasenko has been completely invisible.

In a series where Ryan O’Reilly has managed to completely shut down Elias Pettersson’s line at 5-on-5, Horvat has done more than just shut down the Schenn Line — he’s thoroughly outplayed and out-scored them. Combine that with his work on the power play and it’s clear that Horvat has had the biggest impact on this series, at least among the forwards.

Of course, while his defensive game has been crucial, the goals are more eye-catching. The playoffs might be missing the star power of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, but Horvat’s highlight reel goals have the hockey world taking notice.

No goal was bigger than his overtime gamewinner in Game 2, defusing the Blues’ comeback attempt after they tied the game in the final seconds of regulation. 

All three goals Horvat had scored on Jordan Binnington up until that point had gone in on the stick side, past Binnington’s blocker. It’s an area the entire team has been targeting with success through these first two games. In overtime, however, Horvat switched it up, sliding the puck along the ice through the five-hole with a quick snap shot.

“I was thinking about it the entire time, to be honest with you, as soon as I got the puck,” said Horvat of his decision to go five-hole. “It’s usually tougher for a goalie, especially coming in on that side, if you do a quick snap five-hole, so I just wanted to try it. I’m usually not a five-hole shooter and just tried it in the spur of the moment and luckily it went in.”

That’s been a common theme for Horvat’s descriptions of his goals: “luck.” Horvat seems to have a healthy respect for how bounces, both good and bad, can have an impact on the game. If he keeps dominating the two-way game against the Blues, however, he’ll give himself more opportunities for the puck to keep bouncing his way.

And, if Horvat can keep dominating, maybe he’ll shed the beast of burden nicknames and shorten it to just one word: Beast.