There are dozens of stories that could be written about the Vancouver Canucks’ Game 1 win over the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The key performance for the Canucks, however, came from Bo Horvat.
It was a signature game for the Canucks’ captain, who did a little bit of everything. He opened the scoring on the power play, then scored a gorgeous goal at even-strength in the third period to give the Canucks some breathing room. He was on the ice for four of the Canucks’ five goals and none of the goals scored by the Blues.
Horvat had a team-high four shots on goal and was the only Canuck above 50% in the faceoff circle.
Most importantly, he was hard-matched against the Blues’ top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz, and shut them down. When Horvat was on the ice against the Schenn line at 5-on-5, the Blues had just two shots on goal. That’s about all you can ask for from a matchup line, but instead Horvat and his linemates did a little more, out-shooting and out-scoring the Blues’ top line.
That’s the type of on-ice leadership the Canucks needed from their captain.
“He was a horse tonight,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “Since Game 1 of the Minnesota series, he’s just slowly been getting better. Tonight, he just looked like he had his jump back in his stride and he was strong on the puck. He does a lot of things that a team needs to win and he’s playing his best when he’s playing a 200-foot game.”
What’s noteworthy is that Horvat is one of the few remaining players from the last time the Canucks were in the playoffs. It’s just him, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev remaining from the lineup that fell to the Calgary Flames in six games back in 2015.
Back then, Horvat was a rookie facing his first playoff games in the NHL, but even then he had an impact, tying for the team lead with four points in relatively limited minutes. Just like in Junior, when he once had 16 goals in a 21-game playoff run with the London Knights, Horvat elevated his play in the biggest games. If Game 1 against the Blues is any indication, he’s set to do it again.
“You want to get up for the big games, you want to be a difference maker, especially at 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.”
They were definitely the moments I wanted to be in when I watched this game.
- Another player that has elevated his game in the playoffs is Brandon Sutter, who is playing like he hasn’t just been through a grueling regular season that wreaks havoc on his frequently-injured body. Sutter drew the first penalty of the game by stealing the puck off the St. Louis cycle and burning rubber for a breakaway the other way. He fought off Justin Faulk’s slash to still get a great chance on Jordan Binnington or he likely would have been awarded a penalty shot.
- The power play wasted no time cashing in. Elias Pettersson kept the puck in at the blue line with great hustle then fed a rotating J.T. Miller, who took Quinn Hughes’ spot on the point. That let Hughes make like a festival DJ and get creative on the boards, setting up Horvat for a one-timer with a perfectly-weighted pass. The puck zipped past Binnington before the Blues goaltender had even finished reacting to the pass.
- There was some confusion prior to the game about whether J.T. Miller was in the lineup or not. It appears he was a game-time decision for some unknown reason — Green would only say, “He couldn’t get out for warmup, and obviously he played the game, so that’s about all I’m going to say” — and it’s fortunate he played. While his line with Pettersson and Brock Boeser was a bit of a wasteland at 5-on-5 against the elite shutdown abilities of Ryan “Baba” O’Reilly, Miller finished with a goal and an assist on the power play, which went 3-for-6.
- While the Canucks had six power plays to the Blues’ three, there was still a lot that went uncalled, as the Blues tested their boundaries to see what they could get away with. It turns out, they could get away with quite a lot, such as Troy Brouwer’s stick to Antoine Roussel’s couilles, if you’ll pardon my french, which somehow wasn’t a penalty.
- The main offender for the Blues, however, was David Perron. He took every opportunity to take shots at the Canucks’ stars, crosschecking, face washing, and full-out tackling Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes away from the play, but never quite doing enough to make the referees see their interactions as anything other than typical playoff battles.
- What’s frustrating about Perron is that he’s just as good a player as he is an agitator. Perron led the Blues in goal scoring this season and he made it crystal clear why, duplicating Horvat’s goal with a one-timer of his own from the top of the faceoff circle on the power play. Perron was surrounded by three penalty killers, but his release was, like Madonna’s in the 90’s, quicker than a ray of light.
- Pettersson met a brick wall named Ryan O’Reilly at even-strength — the Canucks didn’t get a single shot on goal with Pettersson on the ice at 5-on-5 — but O’Reilly couldn’t contain the sweet Swede on the power play. Brock Boeser drove to the front of the net, but had the puck purloined before he could shoot. Unfortunately for the Blues, Alex Pietrangelo kicked the puck right to Pettersson, who contorted his body like Sofie Dossi to fire an arrow into the top corner.
- Quinn Hughes had another fantastic game, but I regret to inform you that he’s not perfect. Off a faceoff in the Blues’ zone, Chris Tanev pinched towards the puck with Schwartz closing in. That should have been a cue for Hughes to play it safe and back up into the neutral zone to cover for Tanev — instead, he stood still, and Schwartz used his blazing speed to create a breakaway, tucking the puck five-hole on Jacob Markstrom.
- That was the last puck to get behind Markstrom, however, as he shut the door the rest of the way. Markstrom finished with 29 saves on 31 shots, but his best stop technically didn’t even count as a save. In the final minutes, Markstrom made a save on Schwartz, but the rebound deflected off Edler’s skate back towards the net. Markstrom stretched out his leg like Dhalsim and got his toe on the puck to squash the Blues’ hopes.
HELLO JACOB MARKSTROM pic.twitter.com/NG68WMsgJO— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) August 13, 2020
- The Horvat line with Loui Eriksson and Tanner Pearson deserves credit for their matchup game against the Schenn line, but so does the defence pairing of Alex Edler and Troy Stecher, who were phenomenal in shutting down the Blues’ top line. When Stecher was on the ice against that line, shots on goal were 8-2 for the Canucks. It was a fantastic game for Stecher, but also an emotional one.
- The emotions came pouring to the surface for Stecher when he scored what proved to be the game-winning goal. After Pearson, Horvat, and Boeser created a turnover in the Blues’ zone, the puck came to Stecher on the right side. He ripped a slap shot under Binnington’s blocker, then pointed skyward, dedicating the goal to his late father, who passed away suddenly less than two months ago.
- "It’s been tough, obviously, at certain moments throughout this process,” said Stecher. “I’m thankful to be surrounded by my teammates. I had a couple seconds there to reflect on my dad and the biggest thing was everyone showed their support on the bench instantly and gave me a tap and that just motivated me to keep it going.”
- “I saw his celebration right away,” said Pettersson, who embraced Stecher during the TV timeout after his goal. “What Troy had to go through during the summer was just devastating, so I just wanted to go and hug him.”
- A few minutes later, Horvat made it 4-2 with a brilliant individual effort. Horvat took a pass from Pearson in full flight through the neutral zone, completely undressed Vince Dunn with a slick toe drag, then cut back to the forehand to beat Binnington. Playoff goals don’t come much prettier than that.
- I said it was an individual effort, but there’s rarely such a thing in hockey. Even on this goal, it doesn’t happen without Loui Eriksson driving the centre lane, preventing Pietrangelo from cutting across to help Dunn with a well-timed stick lift. Eriksson didn't get an assist on the play, but, like the extras in a middle school musical, he still played a part.
- The Canucks sealed the game with a late power play, preventing any chance of a last-minute comeback, which have been all the rage this postseason. The power play spread out and played keepaway, lulling the Blues into a false sense of security, like they were just going to let the clock run out. That’s when they struck: Boeser set up Miller with a wide open net with a wicked pass through the middle of the Blues’ penalty kill. Like Bob Ross, Miller made no mistake.
- That’s a big, emotional win for the Canucks, their first playoff win since 2015. It helps that they were able to ride the momentum of their qualifying round win over the Minnesota Wild, as opposed to the Blues, who only played a series of glorified exhibition games. The Blues, however, are still the defending Stanley Cup champions and can be expected to push back hard as the series progresses.