EDMONTON – The last time a Vancouver Canucks centre was this dominant in a playoff series, Ryan Kesler almost single-handedly beat the Nashville Predators in 2011 to speed his team towards the Stanley Cup Final.
In many ways, Bo Horvat is so not like Kesler.
There are, however, some striking similarities, the most obvious of which is Horvat’s ability to drive the Canucks from the second line. Kesler played behind Henrik Sedin. Horvat plays behind Elias Pettersson.
But against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, Horvat is playing ahead of everyone.
He scored a pair of highlight-reel goals on Friday, including a breakaway winner in overtime on an all-world stretch pass from Quinn Hughes, as the Canucks won 4-3 to take a 2-0 lead in the first-round series.
Horvat has four goals in two games while skating with more speed and power than anyone. Two more wins will give the Canucks a seminal upset against the reigning champions in Vancouver’s first playoff tournament since 2015.
“There’s that stereotype where you say guys are built for the playoffs,” linemate Tanner Pearson said after the Canucks survived a two-goal collapse in the final 11 minutes. “That’s bang-on with Bo. Hard, heavy down low, does a lot of things right. So he’s definitely showing up and he’s leading the way for us. We’re just following him right now, which we’ll do in a heartbeat.”
Pearson also scored on Friday but the only Canuck close to Horvat was goalie Jacob Markstrom, who made 34 saves and would have had the win in regulation time had David Perron’s chest-high deflection that tied the game 3-3 off teammate Jaden Schwartz with 6.4 seconds remaining not withstood a video review.
Horvat, who spectacularly weaved through veteran Blues Schwartz and Brayden Schenn before beating goalie Jordan Binnington in the first period to open scoring shorthanded, surprised Binnington with a quick shot between his feet 5:55 into the extra period.
The breakaway was sprung by the boy genius Hughes, the 20-year-old Calder Trophy finalist who processes the game at superior level to almost everyone.
Here is how Hughes analyzed his weighted bank pass to Horvat behind the Blues’ defence as St. Louis centre Tyler Bozak was about to bury the defenceman along the boards in the Canucks’ zone: “I kind of came out of the corner with the puck there. I don’t know who their D was – I think it was (Vince) Dunn – and he was kind of in the middle, not too much on the boards. And especially him being a lefty, I thought it would be hard for him to get that pass (to his right). Obviously, I wanted to make a direct pass but I don’t think it was an option.”
“I don’t know how many guys could make the pass that Hughes did,” Vancouver coach Travis Green marvelled. “You could see (the play developing) from the bench. Sometimes you see a play and you wonder if the guy can make the play. And he’s one of those players that can make those quick, long stretch passes even when he’s tired and under pressure. And Bo read the play. Two good players making good plays.”
Half of the Canucks’ lineup had never played an NHL playoff game until this month. Horvat, the team captain, hadn’t played any since he was a rookie in 2015 when Vancouver lost in the first round to the Calgary Flames.
The Canucks’ qualifying-round win last week against Minnesota was the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2011, and their current five-game post-season winning streak is Vancouver’s longest since 2009. That streak began with a four-game sweep of the Blues.
“It hasn’t been fun, that’s for sure,” Horvat said of the last four years, when the Canucks lost more games than anyone except the Buffalo Sabres. “I’m the type of guy that watches the playoffs when you’re not in them. You want to see what it’s all about. It’s the best kind of hockey you can play. I wanted to get back here for four years and luckily, we’re back now. We just have to keep this thing going. It’s a lot of fun, the team’s playing well, and we’ve still got to win two more hockey games here.”
Horvat was awful in the tournament-opener against Minnesota and has elevated his game from there. His six goals in six games lead the playoffs.
“He’s playing phenomenal right now,” Green said. “The last three games are as good as I’ve seen him maybe in my (three seasons) here. I know he wasn’t happy with his game in the first couple. The good thing about Bo is you can be honest with him, be honest with his game. He’s a big body that can skate. If anyone’s made for playoff hockey, it’s Bo Horvat and he’s definitely on top of his game right now.”
The Horvat-Pearson-Loui Eriksson line has been vital to the 2-0 lead because St. Louis’ Selke Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Ryan O’Reilly, has turned Pettersson and linemates Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller into power-play specialists.
The Canucks’ top line is still pretty good at that, though, and generated another couple of power-play goals on Friday.
Special teams have been a huge advantage for the Canucks, but they’ve needed Horvat and Markstrom and the stout defending they’ve displayed in the playoffs that frequently eluded them during the regular season.
They did enough to lose on Friday, blowing a two-goal third-period lead, but still won. They also won without 20-minute defenceman Tyler Myers, who was injured in the final period after being shoved head-first into the boards by Schenn, who was not penalized.
“That’s a tough goal for a young group to give up,” Green said of Schwartz’s equalizer. “You’re heading into overtime (after) six seconds away from being up 2-0. I was pretty honest with them. I just said, ‘Hey, if you would have given us overtime in Game 2 to go up 2-0, we would have taken that a couple of days ago and ran with it. We’re in a good spot here. Let’s go win the game now and not worry about what happened in the past. Let’s worry about right now.’”
The Blues may be worrying right now.