VANCOUVER — It was a little ironic when Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said after the Tyler Toffoli trade that minor-league call-up Zack MacEwen had become a full-time NHL player. Because MacEwen was shoved back out of the lineup as soon as Toffoli arrived nearly three weeks ago.
But Friday, in one of the few games in which Toffoli didn’t score for his new team, MacEwen scored two as the Canucks, frantic to stay above the playoff cut line, beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-3 to end a costly four-game losing streak.
People at Rogers Arena got so carried away, a couple of fans tossed hats on to the ice when the 23-year-old undrafted forward from Prince Edward Island and the Quebec League chipped in his second of the game from an Antoine Roussel pass to give the Canucks some breathing room at 16:43 of the third period.
Two goals, three goals, whatever. It may as well have been five for the impact MacEwen made in the 19th game of his National Hockey League career.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve had many like it so far in my career. It’s definitely a night I’m going to remember, and I think it will help my confidence that my game is trending in the right direction.”
It was just MacEwen’s third game back in coach Travis Green’s lineup after sitting out five. Full-time work sure looked part-time for the six-foot-three forward earning a living on hard work, physicality and promise.
“I saw the quote,” he said of Benning’s praise. “It was definitely a vote of confidence for me to know that they feel that way about me. It’s just good to know my game is progressing to the NHL level. I just want to keep proving that though with each game, each chance I get to play.”
Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, who won Friday for just the second time in five starts since Jacob Markstrom underwent knee surgery, was MacEwen’s teammate and roommate with the Utica Comets the last two seasons.
“I’ve been with him every step of the way,” Demko said. “He comes to the rink every day and (is) a good pro. I’m just really happy for him.
“He’s been in and out of the lineup all year, called up and sent down. For him to rise to the occasion tonight and get those two is huge. I think his game has come a long way. He’s a big strong kid. He goes out there and wears his heart on his sleeve. He’ll do anything for the team.”
The trio of MacEwen, Roussel and Adam Gaudette was probably the Canucks’ best line against Colorado.
It also produced what turned out to be the game-winner when Roussel converted a goalmouth pass from Gaudette, who spun away from Avalanche defenceman Ian Cole, to break a 3-3 tie at 12:17 of the second period.
The Canucks have looked a lot more comfortable lately chasing a lead than actually playing with one, which is understandable given the amount of practise they’ve had at the former and lack of success at the latter.
During their four-game dive, the Canucks had a late lead in two games, were tied in the third period of another and came out with zero points. So, yeah, they look a little nervy with the lead. Lobsters in the fish tank at a busy seafood restaurant are more comfortable than the Canucks with a lead, because the crustaceans don’t know what’s coming.
But on Friday, after a porous first period in which they led 2-1 despite getting outshot 18-7 and forced Demko to make a pile of difficult saves, the Canucks held the Avalanche to 14 shots over the final 40 minutes.
They still blew a lead, of course, as Colorado goals by Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin less than five minutes apart early in the second period vaporized a 3-1 Vancouver advantage.
But the Canucks defended competently, if not comfortably, and were happy to see Colorado’s Matt Nieto miss an open net early in the third period when the score was still 4-3.
Troy Stecher, J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson, into an empty net, had the other goals for Vancouver, which needed the win to retain a playoff position they’ve held all winter in the Western Conference.
The Canucks used Bo Horvat head-to-head against Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon, who had two assists and 12 shot attempts for the Avalanche and was still easily the game’s most dangerous player.
Vancouver’s shutdown defenceman, Chris Tanev, said MacKinnon is the probably the toughest player in the league to defend.
“He’s extremely tough, especially since he’s got that new move where it looks like he’s going to shoot it, but basically spins and gets a lot on his backhand,” Tanev said. “I don’t know if there’s another player in the league who can do it like that.
“I thought after the first, we sort of played a little better. The first, we were fortunate to be up 2-1. We were very opportunistic… but they controlled most of the play. After that, I thought it was a pretty even game.”
One point up in the wild-card race, the Canucks play the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday at Rogers Arena.