University of Bo: Canucks’ Horvat reunites with some familiar linemates

Vancouver Canucks' captain Bo Horvat (Darryl Dyck/CP)

WASHINGTON — Sunday was like homecoming at the University of Bo.

There was Brock Boeser (Class of 2018), practising back on Bo Horvat’s right wing, which is where Boeser’s National Hockey League career began. Boeser graduated from Bo U. about 10 minutes after Elias Pettersson arrived on the Vancouver campus four years ago.

On Horvat’s left wing was returning student Tanner Pearson, Horvat’s longest-tenured linemate before Bruce Boudreau became the Canucks’ coach last December and moved Pearson alongside centre J.T. Miller. Horvat helped re-start the winger’s NHL career when Pearson was traded to the Canucks in 2019 and scored nine goals in his first 19 games.

Horvat joked a year ago, after Nils Hoglander was moved off his line following an impressive rookie season, that he was like he was a prep school that sent wingers on to bigger things. 

But it was like old times on Sunday for Horvat, Boeser and Pearson — and desperate times for the Canucks as Boudreau scrambled his lines after Vancouver managed to lose in regulation its first two games, despite holding leads of 3-0 and 2-0 against the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers.

Horvat helped Pearson and Boeser get better. He could use some of their help now. All three of them have struggled through the opening two games.

“I think everybody in this room knows we can be better and everybody’s got a little bit more to give,” Horvat said as the Canucks prepared to play the Washington Capitals on Monday. “I think we can help each other get going for sure.

“There are some good things about my game, but there’s also things I’ve got to clean up a little bit. I think I can be a little bit more of a threat offensively. Defensively, I think I’ve been fine. It’s just finding the confidence with the puck to try and make a little more plays. But, you know, that all comes.”

Soon, Boudreau hopes.

Still looking for his 600th NHL win — mostly so reporters will stop asking him about it — Boudreau swapped Miller and Horvat at practice, giving each centre the other’s wingers after the Miller-Pearson-Boeser top line was obliterated territorially in Saturday’s 3-2 loss in Philadelphia.

Horvat wasn’t much better with Conor Garland and Vasily Podkolzin, who practised Sunday with Miller.

Horvat hasn’t looked like his powerful, dynamic self the first couple of games. The Canucks captain is at his best when he is driving play, using his speed to back off defenders and get to the net. 

He looked nervy on a couple of turnovers against the Flyers. Horvat said during the pre-season that he couldn’t allow his contract situation — unsigned beyond this season and negotiations apparently stalled — to affect his play. Is it on his mind?

“It’s always going to be in the back of your mind, obviously,” he said Sunday. “But for me, it’s not letting it get to me and just go and play. I can only control so much. I can only control my play on the ice and helping this team win. Obviously, when the team has success, I’m going to have success and everybody’s going to be happy. If we can get back to that, it’s going to be good.

“The whole team has got to limit their turnovers. But for me, just find that simple 200-foot game that I have always been known for. I’m not going to be the flashiest guy out there, but doing the little things is what kind of separates me.”

A 31-goal scorer last season, Horvat’s only point so far is a power-play assist. But that unit has been outscored 2-1 by opposition penalty-killers and is half of the reason why the Canucks have built a 6-1 deficit on special teams through two games.

Horvat’s expected goals-for at five-on-five is just 43.9 per cent, although that number sparkles compared to Pearson (27.1 per cent) and Boeser (26.3). The tiny two-game sample isn’t worthy of any major conclusions, but Boeser has just two shots on target in two games, while Pearson has looked uncharacteristically suspect, taking three minor penalties and registering just one hit so far.

“I’ve got some stuff to clean up,” Pearson said. “I pride myself on board battles and small details like that. And forechecking, rather than being one-and-done (in the offensive zone) and chasing the whole game.”

Pearson noted he has played more with Horvat than any other linemate since joining the Canucks and believes the two have “chemistry.” 

“When we’re good, we’re on the forecheck and creating turnovers and then going to work offensively,” he said.

Boeser, at least, has a reason if this turns into a slow start for him: for the second straight year, he missed the pre-season due to injury and is only now getting the reps a lot of others had in September.

He has two assists, but the Canucks have been outshot at even strength when Boeser is on the ice.

“It’s not easy,” Boeser said. “I was so excited to have a full camp and my body’s feeling good, and then to get a fluke (hand) injury, I was definitely frustrated. But I worked hard to be able to get back for the first game. Obviously, there’s some things. . . little details that are going to take games to kind of get back. Little things I’ve got to try to focus on right now and try to build each game and keep building.”

Boeser’s absence allowed Kuzmenko to seize his goalmouth position on the first-unit power play.

“I’m a guy that’s competitive and I’d like to be on that first unit with those guys,” Boeser said. “But wherever I get put, I’m going to try and do my best. Whenever I get out there, I’m going to try to score a goal. It doesn’t really change my mindset: try to help the team win.”

Boudreau said he believes Horvat, Pearson and Boeser can become a “checking-scoring line” — a unit that can defend against top forwards while still generating offence. As an example, the coach cited the trio of Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker that Boudreau had with the Minnesota Wild a few years ago.

Tucker Poolman, who missed the final two periods in Philadelphia with what is believed to be a recurrence of migraine complications that cost him the second half of last season, did not practise on Sunday although Boudreau said the defenceman was feeling better. 

Spare defenceman Jack Rathbone is expected to make his season debut on Monday, while Kyle Burroughs will be elevated to a top-four role to replace Poolman alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson. For blue line depth, the Canucks recalled American League defenceman Noah Juulsen, sending extra forward Sheldon Dries the other way.

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