VANCOUVER — It is impossible to look at the Vancouver Canucks these days and see only the players and not the people.
After the team ended a four-game losing streak on Tuesday, Elias Pettersson stood at one end of the dressing room smiling, talking about his parents and grandparents and the 12 people who travelled from Sweden for his 21st birthday and a visit to Vancouver.
With a potentially spectacular career ahead of him, Pettersson, no longer a boy but still not full grown, rewarded his family by scoring twice in a 5-3 victory against the Nashville Predators.
At the opposite side of the room, Canuck goalie Thatcher Demko quietly talked to reporters while wearing a grey-and-pink Hockey Fights Cancer ballcap. He said it was for Jacob Markstrom, the friend and teammate who lost his father, Anders, to cancer at age 59 on the weekend and then put what was left of his heart into the Canucks’ 2-1 loss Sunday to the New Jersey Devils.
“It’s for a lot of people,” Demko explained of his hat. “But it hits home a little bit harder with the team and what Marky is going through right now. The team played really hard for him on Sunday. That was an important game for our locker room and we were all disappointed a little more than normal not getting a win.
“Tonight, we wanted to prove to him we’d play hard again for him. He might not have been playing, but guys were thinking about him and playing for him.
“I think everyone in here is rooting for him. He’s a guy the team rallies around and respects a lot. He’s been there for me when I’ve been down. Obviously, I’ve never been through something like he’s going through right now. I’m just there for him if he needs me.”
Markstrom has not spoken to the media about his loss, or about the five-day leave he took from the Canucks in October to visit his father in Sweden during the final stages of his dad’s cancer. The Canucks not only agreed to the trip but encouraged it, knowing that Markstrom could be too late if he waited for the short Christmas break to go home.
Despite the emotions of the last six weeks, Markstrom still managed to start 12 games for the Canucks, posting a .918 save percentage.
“It’s incredible,” Demko said. “I think it gets lost. People just look at the numbers, and his numbers are really good. And they don’t think about what he’s been going through. It’s been tough to see, and it kind of makes you step back and realize how lucky you are. I still have both of my parents and I couldn’t even fathom one of them passing. It’s really hard.”
There is no life and death in hockey games, just among players who are people like the rest of us.
Pettersson’s goals against the Predators — a power-play goal conjured out of nothing, and the game-winner on a rebound at 11:41 of the third period — came after a four-game spell in which he had managed only one assist.
The Canucks went 0-3-1 in those games and played well enough to earn more than the single point they got out of them. Ironically, they probably received more than they deserved from the Predators, who outshot the Canucks 37-26 and outplayed them in the second period as badly as any team has this season.
When ambushed with the question, Pettersson couldn’t think of the best birthday gift he ever received, but said he likes playing on his birthday.
“Ever since I got up to, like, high school hockey, I’ve always been away (from home),” he said. “Yeah, it’s special. I’ve been playing the last four years, I think, on my birthday. But it is the first win in a while on my birthday.
“It’s nice to get some goals. I think the last couple of games we haven’t created that much. We stuck with it and worked hard and it was nice to get some bounces.”
The only Canuck happier than Pettersson was winger Tanner Pearson, who shattered a 14-game scoring famine with the first and last Vancouver goals, the latter one 180 feet into an empty net to clinch it after Filip Forsberg’s post-and-in power-play one-timer had brought the Predators within a goal with 5:34 remaining.
“I was about to punch the glass,” he said of his second-period goal celebration after embarrassing Ryan Ellis at the Nashville blue line and blowing a shot past goalie Pekka Rinne. “But I thought I’d break my hand, so I didn’t. It was definitely good to get that one.
“It’s been a long time since the last one, so it was nice to get one and get the win, too, after losing a couple in a row.”
There was one other very human moment for the Canucks: five minutes into the game, veteran centre Brandon Sutter attempted a two-second shift after returning to the bench from the dressing room, smashed his stick against the boards and left for good to the dressing room.
He appeared to suffer a groin injury while skating in on a forecheck the previous shift. The 30-year-old’s season last year ended with major abdominal surgery — his second in four years as a Canuck. Vancouver coach Travis Green offered no injury report after Tuesday’s game.
Sutter’s replacement, second-year pro Adam Gaudette, scored.