EDMONTON – The sixth of August is a difficult day for Brock Boeser.
It is filled with emotion, mostly sadness, remembering the death of one of his best friends in high school in a car crash in which Boeser surely would have been involved in had he not been in Europe playing for the U.S. under-18 team on Aug. 6, 2014.
Until Thursday, that day was never about hockey. But this is an extraordinary year, also with too much sadness and fear.
Given a chance to play a National Hockey League playoff game on the sixth anniversary of Ty Alyea’s death, Boeser gave his old friend – and the crash survivors watching back home in Burnsville, Minn. – something special: a goal in the Vancouver Canucks’ 3-0 win over the Minnesota Wild.
After demonstrating the evolution in his game by winning a puck battle in the corner against two penalty-killers, then going back to the front of the net to fight for a rebound that opened scoring at 13:49 of the second period, Boeser quietly pointed to the heavens when he returned to the bench.
The game also demonstrated the evolution of the Canucks, who are supposed to be about flash and talent but have yet to allow a five-on-five goal while building a 2-1 series lead against one of the NHL’s best even-strength teams.
The Canucks can win their first playoff series since going to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final if they beat the Wild in Game 4 on Friday night.
“It’s obviously a tough day for my friends and I,” Boeser said after a game in which he had a goal, assist and two of the 22 blocked shots the Canucks had in front of goalie Jacob Markstrom. “It’s crazy how fast time flies. To be able to get one for him, it’s something special. It’s an emotional day for sure and I tried to make the most of it today out on the ice.”
Boeser has maintained his friendships from high school, including with Cole Borchardt, who was permanently injured in the crash. Boeser has said had he been home, he too would have been in the Jeep that rolled over after a summer outing to a nearby lake.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a game since,” Boeser, 23, said of Aug. 6. “Obviously, it’s weird and different that we had a hockey game in August, but I know my friends are all hanging out today and being with each other.”
“A few of the boys went over to the grave today to pay their respects, which Brock would have done if he was in town,” Laurie Boeser, Brock’s mom, said over the phone from Burnsville. “It was a very traumatic thing. I think Brock really learned the value of friendship and not taking things for granted. There is a purpose and a meaning when he’s out there playing hockey. I think he appreciates his opportunity to be a professional, but he also knows he’s playing for others, too.”
The Canucks are also playing for each other inside the NHL bubble. Driven by young stars seeing playoff hockey for the first time, the team appears to be getting stronger each game.
“They’re growing, that’s for sure,” Canuck coach Travis Green said. “We’ve got a young group that hasn’t played these types of games yet. After Game 1 (3-0 loss), I thought our team looked a little nervous. I thought we played very well in Game 2 (4-3 win) and we talked about winning the next game.
“(But) it might not have been the skill that got us through tonight. It might have been a lot of will that got us this win tonight which, as a coach, you like to see.”
Canucks penalty killing blanked the Wild on seven power plays and 12:15 worth of advantages.
Grinding winger Antoine Roussel, who didn’t finish Tuesday’s win after getting drilled in the face by a puck, not only made it back to the lineup on Thursday but scored a huge breakaway goal at 2:18 of the third period, beating Minnesota goalie Alex Stalock on a backhand deke after the puck skipped past Wild defenceman Brad Hunt.
Markstrom made 27 saves and key penalty-killer Tyler Motte seemed to stop the rest, blocking seven shots.
“Every time there’s a blocked shot, everybody is banging their sticks (at the bench) and yelling,” Markstrom said. “That gives energy and adrenalin. It’s not only big hits and goals that guys are cheering for.”
Pettersson, Hughes and Boeser combined for seven points and their impact on the series has been immense. None has looked in awe of the playoff stage nor intimidated by the physical abuse the Wild is trying to inflict.
Pettersson survived a head-first boarding by Minnesota winger Ryan Hartman, whom the Canuck had injured in Game 2 with a shove from behind in retaliation for a high stick.
“I believe when you’re young, sometimes you don’t know the extent of what you’re playing for and what it means for everybody watching,” Roussel, 30, said. “As you get older, sometimes you really see. That naïveté — they’re not afraid of anything. I’ll go to battle with those guys any day.”
But the win, Green emphasized, was about more than just his three young stars.
“They played a big part of it,” he said. “Obviously, there were a lot of other guys that played a part in this win, for sure. We’ve talked about it for a few years that our guys need to gain experience in these type of games. But we’re not just here to get experience. We want to win the game, we want to win this series. We’ve put ourselves in a spot and we’re going to have to play a little better tomorrow if we want to win.”