VANCOUVER – The day he signed with the Vancouver Canucks near the end of the summer, Thomas Vanek skated with the pros and college hockey players who train at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, just south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
Vanek played at the University of Minnesota and makes his off-season home there. Brock Boeser grew up in Burnsville, Minn. They skated together for most of the summer when neither could have known what was in store for him with the Vancouver Canucks.
“I didn’t know him super well,” Vanek, 33, said Thursday. “But we scrimmaged and ended up on the same line a few times. I just liked him right away. What I liked about him is he’s a humble kid. I mean, you can tell he has talent. But he’s a good kid. You like to help guys like him.
“The day I signed, we skated later on. He was excited and I was excited and we joked around that maybe we could keep that summer chemistry going.”
The Chicago Blackhawks wish they hadn’t.
Boeser, the 20-year-old National Hockey League rookie, Vanek and veteran Sam Gagner produced all the goals and combined for 12 points as the Canucks emerged from the Christmas break with their best performance in three weeks – a 5-2 win against the Blackhawks.
Canuck goalie Jacob Markstrom made 30 saves.
Vanek, signed to a one-year contract to provide depth and a tradeable asset, had two goals and three assists and set up one of the prettiest Vancouver goals this season. He sifted past Chicago defenceman Jan Rutta and with only goalie Anton Forsberg to beat for his hat trick late in the third period, reversed the puck 180 degrees for Boeser to score his 21st goal in his 35th game.
“He had some insane passes like that in the summer, but I thought he was for sure shooting,” Boeser said. “I thought he would go for the hat trick, then I saw him turn it back (to me). Oh, my God.”
That would be OMG!!!! for the kids and just about everyone who saw it at Rogers Arena.
It’s true the Blackhawks are not the team they were. But then neither are the Canucks. Vancouver isn’t even the team it was four weeks ago before injuries decimated their top two forward lines.
Back then, nobody could have envisioned that Boeser would be joined on the top unit by an old pro trying to extend his career and a 28-year-old in Gagner, another free-agent acquisition, who saved his NHL career last year in Columbus.
Gagner, who scored only twice in his first 23 games as a Canuck, had two goals on Thursday and now has points in five of the last six.
It’s tempting to say there was nothing wrong with Gagner that Boeser couldn’t fix, but the former Edmonton Oiler first-rounder started playing better even before Canuck coach Travis Green moved him beside Boeser and Vanek four games ago.
“They both have tremendous skill and they’re both tremendous playmakers,” Boeser said. “I think we all see the ice pretty well and we communicate and kind of have an idea where each other are. Each game we’re getting better and better.”
Gagner said Boeser’s pursuit of the puck, as well as his strength and composure with it, are often overlooked because of the rookie’s tremendous shooting ability.
“You look at his shot and the way he’s able to get into scoring areas and create chances,” Gagner said. “But for me, playing with him, we have the puck a lot because he hounds it and makes good decisions with it. The numbers he puts up, I don’t think it’s an accident. He gets himself into scoring areas because of how much he’s on the puck.”
Boeser’s four-point night extended his team scoring lead to 38 points in 35 games. The winger drafted 23rd by the Canucks in 2015 leads all NHL rookies.
“The one thing you notice is his release,” Vanek said. “Lots of guys in this league can shoot the puck, but his release is really good. As long as you can find ways to get open, which obviously he can, he can score goals. It’s a tough league to get open, but he’s obviously got a knack for getting open and putting the puck in the net.”
Boeser has been the best thing about the Canucks, who went 1-7-1 in their last nine games before Christmas and plummeted down the standings when injuries reached a critical mass with top centre Bo Horvat’s broken foot on Dec. 5.
Green confronted his team when its Christmas break ended with a lively and loud practice on Wednesday. The Canuck coach barked several times during the hard practice, had a verbal confrontation with goalie Anders Nilsson whom Green suggested should make a save, and then bag-skated the team, lest there be any defeatism from losing or an increase in body fat from festive dining.
The Canucks, who are not a physical team, outhit the Blackhawks 22-13 and played with an overt intensity that has been missing in a lot of games in December.
Apparently, Green’s message was heard.
“The three-day break was great for us,” Vanek said. “It came at the right time, just allowed us to get away and spend some time with our families. Yesterday, we had a good sweat and talked about details and just playing hard until the end. Today was a good example of that.”
And of the chemistry he and Boeser developed last summer before either had made the Canucks.