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IWTG: Canucks get cathartic win over Leafs in first game after COVID-19 outbreak

"This isn’t just your regular win during the regular season. It’s a special win."
The Vancouver Canucks, in their first game back from a COVID-19 outbreak, stunned the Toronto Maple Leafs with a comeback win. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

This game probably shouldn’t have been played. But if they were going to play, the Canucks were going to play to win.

Originally scheduled to return to action on Friday, J.T. Miller and the Canucks players were clear: Friday was too early to return. They simply were not ready to take the ice to play on Friday after dealing with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the NHL. 

“This is hard for me and guys that haven't been affected by COVID,” said Miller on Wednesday. “I cannot imagine guys that have had it and guys that are struggling to breathe getting up and down steps to try to come back and perform. I'm worried about our team's safety.” 

Miller’s appeal in the media and the rest of the team’s discussion with the NHLPA behind closed doors led to their return getting pushed back two days to give the players more time to get their legs under them in practice. Even those two extra days barely seem like enough time.

“We’ve got eight or nine guys out of the lineup tonight that would have a good chance of playing,” said head coach Travis Green before the game, underlining how the team is still significantly impacted by their outbreak.

The Canucks had to dress Jalen Chatfield and Guillaume Brisebois as their third pairing with Nate Schmidt and Olli Juolevi not available. Their top-six forwards were largely intact, apart from Elias Pettersson still out with an injury, but their bottom-six forwards were a dog’s breakfast.

On top of that, they were facing the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, revitalized by the return of stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander to the lineup after absences due to injury and close COVID contact, respectively. Just what the Canucks needed after three weeks without a game and the vast majority of the team succumbing to a respiratory illness.

It seemed like winning this game wasn’t the point — surviving it was. J.T. Miller even made the point on Wednesday that despite his competitiveness, he wasn’t thinking about winning.

“This doesn't have to do with hockey right now for our team,” said Miller. “It's about the health and safety of our players and our players' families and their children. This isn't about making the playoffs for us at this point.”

As a past Canucks slogan said, however, “Compete is in our nature.” The Canucks were not going to take the ice with the mindset of surviving.

“We want to win,” said captain Bo Horvat on Friday. “People can say what they want and think that we’re gonna get steamrolled and I think that just more fuel for the fire to prove them wrong. We have a really resilient group here, a lot of guys that are gonna do whatever they can to help the team win.”

On Sunday, they arguably were steamrolled. The Toronto Maple Leafs largely outplayed the Canucks, out-shooting and out-chancing them by a wide margin. But the Canucks were more resilient than Wayne Knight in Space Jam, bouncing back to their feet after getting flattened, reinflating themselves, and throwing themselves back into the fray.

The Leafs, seemingly taken aback by the Canucks’ blatant disregard for the laws of physics, couldn’t put the game away. Braden Holtby, called upon to start with Thatcher Demko still not available, put on an incredible performance to keep the Canucks in the game and Horvat played like a captain, leading the team to the overtime win with a three-point night, including the game-winning goal.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys in that room,” said Horvat. “The way they manned up tonight and stuck with the process and willed their way to that win. Obviously to score that goal and to get the win for the guys and not only the guys, the organization, our families — it definitely felt great.”

It was a cathartic moment for the Canucks, who came streaming onto the ice to jump on Horvat after his game-winner like it was the playoffs.

“This isn’t just your regular win during the regular season,” said Green after the game, his voice hoarse. “It’s a special win.”

Perhaps the game shouldn’t have been played but the players healthy enough to play in it were likely glad it was. And I’m glad I watched it.

  • To make things just that much harder, Alex Edler left halfway through with a game misconduct — more on that later — leaving the Canucks with just five defencemen and only three of them with significant NHL experience. As a result, Tyler Myers had over 30 minutes in ice time and looked absolutely exhausted by the end of the game.
  • Keep in mind, Myers was one of the players who dealt with tough COVID-19 symptoms: “There were eight to ten symptoms throughout three days — body aches, headaches, fevers, chills, fatigue, sore throat, congestion, just about everything,” said Myers. “It was a tough three days and then we were able to try to get our bodies back but it took a while.”
  • The Canucks’ bottom-six got swamped. The Leafs’ fourth line is Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds, who combined have a lower cap hit than Jay Beagle. Meanwhile, Marc Michaelis, Tyler Graovac, Travis Boyd, and Jayce Hawryluk ended up playing under 9 minutes — Graovac was under 5 minutes — because they couldn’t get the puck out of their own end.
  • That’s not to blame any of those players, mind you. It was a thankless task and who knows how healthy any of the Canucks were. It just made it that much harder on the rest of the Canucks’ forwards when Green couldn’t put a third of his forwards on the ice.
  • William Nylander opened the scoring early for the Leafs off a neutral zone turnover. Seemingly out of sync, Jimmy Vesey’s pass to Brock Boeser was in his feet and John Tavares picked up the loose puck and fed Nylander, who ripped a wrist shot past Holtby’s glove.
  • As much as Horvat had two goals and an assist, Holtby was the hero on the night. The game could’ve gotten ugly, but Holtby was simply outstanding while facing 39 shots on goal. He got lucky too — Spezza had a wide-open net in the first period and put the puck off the post — but he made some spectacular saves. He was making more stops than a bus driver working a double shift on the 99-B Line. 
  • The loss might sting for a moment for the Leafs but the loss of Zach Hyman midway through the second period could hurt them for a lot longer. Alex Edler, tired after a three-minute shift, hung a leg out on Hyman, hitting him knee-on-knee. Hyman stayed down in obvious pain and left the game. After deliberation, the officials gave Edler a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
  • It was the right call and Edler is probably looking at a suspension to boot. Edler didn’t just plant his legs and skate into Hyman but extended his right leg out just before the collision. Hopefully, Hyman isn’t badly hurt.
  • A five-minute penalty kill wasn’t ideal for the Canucks, but Holtby came up with his biggest save to that point in the game, utterly robbing Alex Galchenyuk with the left pad. It was an astonishing feat with his feet, quickly planting with his right skate as Spezza backhanded a rebound to the backdoor, then lunging across with his left leg, getting his pad just high enough for the save.
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  • He couldn’t stop them all. Chatfield rushed up ice looking for a shorthanded chance and dropped the puck for Brandon Sutter, whose slap shot was stopped. The two of them were caught up ice and Antoine Roussel exacerbated the issue by inexplicably doing a flyby on the puck carrier in the offensive zone instead of backing up defensively. Nylander fed Matthews on the counter-attack and he sent a ridiculous chip shot just under the bar.
  • The two-goal lead — the worst lead in hockey, my friends — set the stage for a stunning comeback. It was kicked off by rookie Nils Höglander who picked up a Leafs centring pass on the backcheck and spotted Horvat streaking up ice. At the end of his shift, Horvat didn’t seem to have much left in his legs, but he had plenty of zip left in his stick, snapping the puck short side on Jack Campbell. 
  • The Leafs kept pouring on the pressure, but Holtby held them off in Hasekian fashion. With nine minutes remaining, Simmonds cut in alone on Holtby, who stuck out his stick with a well-timed poke check, only to have the puck vault over his head. Keeping his eyes on the puck the whole way, Holtby windmilled his legs up into the air and kicked the puck away before it could cross the line. It’s one of the best saves of the season.
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  • Quinn Hughes, who had a front-row seat for the save, tried to downplay it, or maybe upplay all his other saves: “He made four or five of those tonight, honestly. He played incredible and I don’t think you can just look at one save tonight.”
  • “That was a great save,” said Horvat. “He does that sometimes in practice and to see it live in a game, it was pretty funny, actually. We always tease him to do it when he does stuff like that in practice and to pull it off in a game was pretty special. I think it did give us some energy and we came out and played the rest of the third really well.”
  • “Luckily I was able to keep my eyes on it and keep it out of the net somehow,” said Holtby, then grinned. “Those ones are fun to make sometimes.”
  • It was a crucial save. One minute later, Horvat spotted Chatfield jumping up the middle of the ice after a zone entry. Chatfield completely fooled Campbell into thinking he was going to shoot, then put a pass right on Höglander’s stick on top of the crease. Höglander shovelled the puck in, tying the game and giving Chatfield his first NHL point.
  • Höglander said he “kind of” knew the pass was coming: “I tried to show my blade there and Chatty did a good pass.”
  • The two teams exchanged crossbars — Hawryluk tipped a Hughes pass off the bar, then Matthews found iron on a last-minute chance — and the game went to overtime. As much as it seemed like overtime was the last thing the depleted Canucks needed, there was no way the Canucks were going to lose at that point.
  • Once again, it was Horvat. Who else? Myers, in his 30th minute of the game, found Horvat with some room up the left side, much like his first goal. Horvat once again shot blocker side, but Campbell, perhaps thinking of how Horvat beat him the first time, overextended his blocker, allowing Horvat to sneak the shot under his arm.
  • Whether the game should have been played or not, the catharsis that was evident in the faces of the Canucks as they streamed onto the ice was something special. No matter what anyone else thinks, the Canucks players could not have been more thrilled.
  • Now the concern is how the Canucks will handle the tough schedule ahead. Hughes, who shut down rumours that he was one of the Canucks who needed an IV while in isolation, talked about how he was feeling: “Of course, the lungs were burning a bit in the first but I think most of it is just legs and trying to get back into it. Honestly, I felt pretty good tonight. Obviously, not 100% but better than I thought I was going to. No complaints here, really.”
  • “Going forward now, because we’re all in this grind now, I think we’ll see who’s gonna man up and push forward,” said Holtby. “I think tonight was a good indication that it’s going to be a lot of us.”