VANCOUVER – Listen carefully to these words: Brendan Gaunce is hot.
No, not Brenda’s dog is lost, or Brennan caught a lot, or Brandon’s gonch is shot. Brendan Gaunce is hot.
The Vancouver Canucks’ grinder, who in December ended a 95-game goal-less streak in the National Hockey League, scored twice Thursday in a 4-2 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks. The crowd at Rogers Arena would have been ducking flying pigs had Gaunce not narrowly missed an empty-net with his 195-foot hat-trick attempt in the final minute.
The 23-year-old who had had one goal – scored off his shin pad – in his first 96 NHL games, suddenly has four in his last 13 games. And both of Thursday’s goals were from his stick.
The Canucks outscored the Blackhawks 4-1 over the final 35 minutes, winning for the third time in four games since coming home healthy for the first time in nearly two months. Their wins the last 10 days were against former rivals: the Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings.
Where are the Boston Bruins when you need them?
They haven’t seen the scoring version of Brendan Gaunce.
“For me to be confident offensively, when I get the chances, I know I can score,” Gaunce, a first-round pick from 2012, said after his finest night in the NHL. “I’ve never had a problem scoring before (at other levels). It’s just kind of that block in your head, like: ‘OK, I haven’t scored in however many games, it’s not going to go. . . where I want it.’ I think today showed if I’m patient and doing the right things, it’s still going to go in.
“Not all guys get to the NHL right away and have success offensively. For me, it was maintaining my game to be able to stay in the NHL defensively. And then it’s kind of just growing on that. I’ve done that everywhere I’ve gone: got the defensive-side first and tried to bring the offence later. It’s just taking a little longer in the NHL.”
Most players don’t get the luxury of going 95 games without a goal in the NHL. Gaunce spent most of his first two pro seasons in the minors where his coach was Travis Green, who is now in charge of the Canucks.
Just last week, after the return from injury the previous two weeks of three key forwards, Gaunce was twice a healthy scratch.
But on Thursday, he logged 17:54 of ice time on a night when Canuck forward Sam Gagner was injured on a first-period hit.
“After I was healthy-scratched, we talked,” Gaunce said when asked about his coach. “He knows my game and I think I know the way he wants me to play. I just have to bring that effort every night. I think the biggest thing is confidence. I’ve been confident playing under him before. When I’m confident playing his style of game, I think I can thrive in it. It’s a very defensive-oriented game, but you push the pace and that’s kind of the way I want to play.”
After scoring the Canucks’ first goal, shooting between Blackhawk goalie Anton Forsberg’s pads on a 2-on-1 to tie the game 1-1 at 5:33 of the second period, Gaunce clinched it at 17:02 of the third when he got his stick in front of defender Brent Seabrook to redirect Loui Eriksson’s centring pass.
“We’re so happy for him,” Canuck centre Bo Horvat said. “He has worked his (butt) off to get to this point here. He deserved getting those two goals tonight. He’s been playing great hockey, getting lots of opportunities. To see him finally get rewarded is awesome.”
The once-mighty Blackhawks, who lost for the fifth time in seven games, have not been playing great hockey.
Nearly a decade since a three-year sequence of playoff battles made the Blackhawks the Canucks’ biggest rivals, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews quipped Thursday morning that it would be a rivalry again as soon as Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Roberto Luongo return to Vancouver.
Toews’ team survived the former Canucks well enough to win three Stanley Cups. But there is the foundation of a new rivalry between the Blackhawks and Canucks because both teams are likely to miss the playoffs.
Sure, Chicago is still the better team. But the Blackhawks arrived in Vancouver four points adrift of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and are trending the wrong way as the once-spectacular power of Toews and Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook starts to erode.
Canuck Daniel Sedin’s deflection made it 3-1 at 2:55 of the final period, and only then did there appear to be any desperation to the Blackhawks’ game.
Alex DeBrincat lasered a shot into the top corner from Brock Boeser’s turnover to bring Chicago within a goal at 10:19 of the third. But Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom was excellent and Canuck penalty-killers blanked the Blackhawks’ 28th-ranked power play for the fourth time in four chances before Gaunce clinched it.
Horvat and Blackhawk Nick Schmaltz had the other goals.
“I think getting all the healthy bodies back definitely helps,” Horvat said after collecting his fourth point in five games since returning from a broken foot. “Having a full team and having confidence that way is a huge key. We’ve got to keep that going.”
Just feed Gaunce. He’s hot.