Canucks’ march towards progress will go where young, star trio leads

Watch as Elias Pettersson skates his way through the Calgary Flames and feeds a wide open Brock Boeser who rips it past David Rittich to tie the game.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Daniel and Henrik Sedin used to say the advantage of being second-liners early in their career was nobody blamed them when the Vancouver Canucks lost or struggled to score. It was always Markus Naslund’s fault.

That buffer did not last long and for a National Hockey League generation, the Sedins played with the burden of expectation and accountability every night, fending off the opposition’s best defenders during games and reporters after them.

The Sedins’ retirement last spring gave others the chance to lead the Canucks, but also removed a layer of protection for front-line forwards Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser. Rookie centre Elias Pettersson scored on opening night for Vancouver and since then, it has been disappointing in any game he hasn’t generated offence.

If the Canucks are going to hang on to the Stanley Cup playoff race in the Western Conference, Horvat, 23, Boeser, 21, and Pettersson, 20, are going to have to lead them from the front. It’s a lot to ask.

“I think it’s a great lesson,” Canucks coach Travis Green said before Vancouver beat the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in a shootout Thursday night. “The twins did it for a long time. And they did it at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, playoff games, games they needed to win. You’re getting the other team’s best, their top defencemen. There’s hard matchups at this time of the year.”

Boeser and Pettersson scored against the Kings, and the Canucks’ tying goal late in the third period was produced by another promising rookie, 22-year-old Adam Gaudette. Horvat merely logged 21:16 of ice time and finished with an assist.

“That’s what we talked about the beginning of the year; we wanted to play these kinds of games for a reason,” Green said. “Hopefully to win them, but also for valuable lessons you’ll use down the road. We’ve had some good meetings with our team about how you have to play at this time of the year, the intensity of the games, the importance of certain details — things that other people don’t notice. I’ve seen a lot of improvements in a lot of our guys. I’ve seen Brock Boeser get in on forechecks and win puck battles that I wouldn’t see him do before.”

Boeser, who finished a beautiful setup by Gaudette and also provided the shootout winner, scored his 20th goal of a season that was initially slowed, then interrupted, by injuries. Pettersson has 26 goals and 53 points in his first 48 NHL games. Horvat, second in Vancouver scoring with 45 points in 59 games, scored his 20th of the season in Monday’s 7-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, whom the Canucks visit on Saturday.

“It’s way harder at this time of year, way harder to create offence,” Horvat said. “Teams are fighting for playoff spots and everybody knows their systems and wants to win, and there’s a lot more line matchups. It’s a lot tougher to create offence, but we’ve got to find a way to get it done. You’ve got to perform every single night to help the team win, and when you don’t, you definitely put that pressure on yourself.”

Asked if it’s fair that three players as young as Horvat, Boeser and Pettersson are expected to drive the attack every night — and essentially save the Canucks during their current injury crisis — Horvat said: “It is a lot to ask. But when you’re put in that position as a young player, it pushes you to be better right away. I think it’s good for all of us to go through this right now. It’s just going to make us better, stronger players.”

The idea of a better, stronger Pettersson is frightening.

“I don’t really think about what people want to see from me,” Pettersson said. “This is the hockey I’ve been playing my whole life — trying to be creative and make my teams better. Just help the team to win. Of course, there’s a lot of expectations on me. But I’ve been getting a lot of expectations since I was 15 or 16 years old. I’m used to it.”

With top defencemen Alex Edler (concussion) and Chris Tanev (ankle) among Vancouver’s six injured players, the defence was led Thursday by Ben Hutton, 25, and Troy Stecher, 24. Hutton logged 28:37 of ice time while Stecher played a staggering 31:55 of the 65 minutes.

“We’re still young and learning and we’re trying to take it a step at a time,” Boeser said. “Sometimes you have off-nights. When you play 82 games over a season, it’s not easy. Expectations are we’re going to be good every night, but we’re going to have off-times when the pucks aren’t going to go in. As long as we’re learning from it, we’ll get better.”

And as long as Horvat, Boeser and Pettersson keep scoring, the Canucks have a chance.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.