It’s hard to figure out which is the bigger story out of the Vancouver Canucks’ 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
Is it Spencer Martin, who finally got his first career NHL win, over five years after his first NHL start?
Or is it J.T. Miller, who got his second career hat trick in a dominant 4-point night?
It’s an easy answer if you ask Miller, who never, ever wants the spotlight on himself. He had an outstanding game by essentially every measure — not just the three goals but a team-high five shots, a 60.9% corsi, a 13-for-17 night in the faceoff circle, and key minutes played on the team’s perfect penalty kill. But if you ask him, he was just fortunate.
“The puck kind of just followed me around today and I got lucky a couple of times,” said Miller, later adding, “Sometimes you get some puck luck, that’s about it. There’s not much difference between good and bad in this league.”
It may be true that there’s a fine line between good and bad in the NHL but I’ll say what Miller won’t: he was thoroughly on the good side of that line on Thursday night.
I’m not alone in that assessment.
“J.T. drove the bus early on. He got the first three, could have had two more — I thought he could have had five goals,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau.
But let’s do what Miller would have us do and shift the attention away from him and towards the other big story of the night: Martin’s first career win.
It’s been a long time coming, not just in his career but since he was called up. In his three starts for the Canucks since being called into emergency action, he has yet to trail in a single game. He’s earned points in all three games — first losing in the shootout, then in overtime, and finally winning on Thursday. In those three games, he’s made 113 saves on 118 shots for a sparkling .958 save percentage, including a whopping 47 saves in the team’s overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
He deserved to get a win in his first start. He definitely deserved it in his second start. He finally got it in his third start.
“That’s three outstanding games he’s played for us in a row,” said Boudreau. “He got points in every game for us and I think it’s the makings of a really good goalie.”
“He’s been playing awesome,” said Miller. “He’s given us a chance to win games…We haven’t been perfect but he seems to be right there to make a timely save.”
After the game ended, Miller made a beeline for the puck, which Tyler Myers had left sitting behind the Canucks net, and made sure to get it to Martin as a memento of his achievement. Even then, he couldn’t take credit for it.
“Actually, Johnny on the bench reminded me it was his first win,” said Miller, referring to Jon Sanderson, the Canucks’ head athletic therapist. “I just looked for the puck to get it for him. It’s a special moment for him.”
It really was a special moment for Martin, even though he tried to play it cool after the game.
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet,” said Martin, later adding, “It was a little bit on my mind each game that I hadn’t had a win. To get this one is huge.”
But Miller’s game was huge too. I don’t think we’re any closer to figuring out which is the bigger story and now the intro to this IWTG is over. I watched this game.
- Conor Garland returned from COVID protocol in this game and was a welcome addition to the lineup, primarily because it meant a return to an actual top-six with two balanced lines. Garland joined Elias Pettersson and Nils Höglander, while Miller centred Vasily Podklzin and Brock Boeser. It was as if the Canucks were balancing a tack hammer on their heads because they were able to head off their foes with a balanced attack.
- As much as Miller had a fantastic game, it didn’t start off so hot. In the first period, he had an absolutely dreadful turnover in the defensive zone, passing the puck right to Kyle Connor in the left faceoff circle for a one-timer. No big deal, Connor is just the Jets’ leading scorer with 23 goals in 40 games. Fortunately, Martin alertly pushed out to the top of his crease to cut off the angle and got his arm on Connor’s shot.
- Yeah, that’s probably the “we haven’t been perfect” that Miller was talking about.
- The Canucks’ power play has been pretty inconsistent this season but they made short work of their two opportunities against the Jets. They were startlingly efficient, spending just 17 seconds total on the power play and scoring their two goals on just two shots.
- “Well, they were pretty accurate shots,” quipped Boudreau when jokingly asked about the lack of shots on the power play when getting more shots has been such a point of emphasis. “Whichever way you can get the two goals is fine by me.”
- The opening goal was as efficient as it gets. Miller won the faceoff and Pettersson took possession on the left side boards. He fed Brock Boeser down low below the goal line and he relayed it to Miller, who had stepped into a soft spot in the Jets’ coverage. His quick one-timer made like a guy looking for something to tie a Christmas tree to the roof of his car and found twine.
- The Jets quickly responded. A shot took a weird deflection to Andrew Copp and he proved true the acronym ACAB — All Copps Are Bunters — by knocking the puck out of the air and into the net with a bunting motion.
- Quinn Hughes is simply marvelous in some of the most subtle areas of the game. This sequence to exit the defensive zone was remarkable: with two players on his back, he neatly sends a pass back through his legs to Boeser along the boards. Boeser sends a tough pass back to him but he neatly controls the aerial puck and, with a little deception towards the middle, spins off his check into space and feeds Boeser for the easy exit.
- Tucker Poolman left the game after the first period, which seems concerning. According to Boudreau, “He was just feeling really crappy.”
- Miller got his second goal shortly into the second period off a great feed from Boeser. While Podkolzin drew the attention of two Jets by driving to the net, Boeser spotted Miller sliding up the right wing and put the puck on his tape for a quick catch-and-release, which is also a painfully bland movie starring Jennifer Garner as a character literally named Gray, as if to emphasize the blandness. Thankfully, Miller’s goal was significantly less boring, zipping into the net in a split second instead of a laborious 107 minutes.
- The Grade-A chances kept coming for Miller — a shorthanded opportunity in alone and a 2-on-1 where he attempted to pass to Podkolzin instead of taking the shot himself — but his hat trick goal came on a seemingly innocuous shot from the top of the left faceoff circle that fooled Connor Hellebuyck and went right through his legs. The trick was using Neal Pionk’s legs to hide his release; you could tell Hellebuyck had no idea where the shot was heading.
- Boeser extended the lead early in the third period on their second power play. Miller won the faceoff, then went to the net, where he was hit by a Hughes point shot and both he and the puck fell to the ice. Thankfully, Boeser whacked at the right one, sending the puck off the post and in instead of Miller.
- Don’t worry, Miller was fine. His face just looked a little angrier than usual for a few minutes. He got a pat on the leg from assistant coach Jason King, while Boeser got a fist bump, which is justifiable for making his power play look so good.
- Pettersson finished off the scoring for the Canucks, turning a comfortable win into a rout. It started with Tyler Motte hitting Neal Pionk with a shot in the foot and the Jets defenceman never really recovered for the rest of the shift. If Pionk had been more mobile, he might have been able to cover Pettersson as he skated into the left faceoff circle and whipped a pass from Myers into the back of the net.
- “I was really happy to see Brock — he was moving his feet and when you move your feet good things happen and the same with Petey,” said Boudreau. “We’re going nowhere unless we get our best players playing the best they can and tonight was one of those nights that they did.”
- Another area that Boudreau highlighted was getting offensive production from the blue line. While all the goals were scored by forwards, every defenceman except Poolman picked up at least one assist, and Poolman only played one period.
- “We showed video this morning on [how] going to the net isn't the important thing — it's going to the net in layers with your stick on the ice,” said Boudreau. “And the defence were shooting for sticks today and I think for the first time in a long time, the defence got five points [Ed: They actually got six points], and I think that’s a big part of it.”