VANCOUVER – In the first game of his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks, about 55 minutes before he was scorched by Connor McDavid on the Edmonton Oilers’ game-winning goal, Quinn Hughes turned to defence partner Chris Tanev before the opening faceoff and asked if they were staying out against the superstar once the puck was dropped.
Tanev told him yes. And the then 19-year-old Hughes, according to Tanev, replied: "OK, let’s go."
Less than three months later, Hughes didn’t have to ask on Monday.
Matched most of the game against the McDavid-Leon Draisaitl line, Hughes not only helped hold the National Hockey League’s top two scorers to three shots on net and a one assist apiece (on the power play), he also blasted in the third-period game winner as the Canucks rallied to beat the Oilers 4-2.
"It’s good, but at the same time it’s humbling," Hughes, who turned 20 two weeks after that Oct. 2 loss in Edmonton, said of shutting down McDavid. "I know that on any given night, those guys could make me (minus) three. I just try to play my position when I play those guys. It’s a good feeling."
Checking centre Jay Beagle has had his whole NHL career to train for assignments like defending against McDavid and Draisaitl. Including the five he played for the Canucks straight out of University of Michigan at the end of last season, Hughes had 41 NHL games before Monday.
"For sure, he surprises me," Beagle said. "I knew he was a great skater coming in. You could tell that from Day 1. Great with the puck. But there are obviously things that you learn about a guy just from playing more games with him, (and) his play away from the puck and his reads, it takes a long time for some guys to get that. He has it right away, which is good for us."
Only a week ago, the laid-back West Coast (except when it comes to the Canucks or pipelines) was fiercely divided over whether coach Travis Green or general manager Jim Benning should be the first one fired after Vancouver lost four of five games to fall four points adrift of the final wild card playoff spot.
They’ve suddenly built their most impressive three-game winning streak of the season with a cathartic OT win against the Vegas Golden Knights, followed by victories against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Oilers, whose standings lead on the Canucks is down to two points.
But the tying goal on Monday was exceptionally controversial, since it involved the highly-subjective and mysterious "kicking motion" rule, the NHL war room in Toronto, a coin flip and a Ouija board before Bo Horvat’s right-footer was allowed to count for the Canucks.
Goal-less at home this season, which meant he hadn’t scored in Vancouver since he was named the Canucks’ captain on Oct. 9, Horvat clearly turned his right skate to guide the generous rebound from Tanner Pearson’s shot into an open net behind Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen at 4:12 of the final period.
There are less footsy goals in soccer than the one Horvat scored, which is why his celebration was muted. He actually looked guilty putting his arms in the air.
"I wasn’t going to get my hopes up until we went to centre ice and the puck was dropped," Horvat said. "I came back to the bench and I was like: ‘You know what, with my luck at home right now, this probably isn’t going to count.’ Definitely wasn’t a kicking motion. I’m happy it went in. It couldn’t have come at a better time."
It was hard to tell post-game which interpretation of the rules was more disappointing to Edmonton coach Dave Tippett: Horvat’s kick or the kick in the teeth of a too-man-men call that preceded Hughes’ power-play winner at 13:48.
"Borderline at that stage of the game," Tippett said of the penalty. "You get some breaks like that, but ultimately you gotta take care of things like that. It’s the details in winning. If you’re not willing to do them enough, you’re going to lose some games and that’s what happened tonight."
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom scored to build a 2-1 lead for Edmonton, which had been 13-0-1 in games they led into the third period. Draisaitl and McDavid each finished minus-three, and the Oilers are just 2-6-1 in their last nine games.
Tyler Motte and Loui Eriksson, into an empty net, scored the other Vancouver goals.
A week ago, nobody foresaw the Canucks going into the Christmas break with this much good cheer.
"We never lost confidence," Hughes said. "We’ve got a good team. We know it. Our coaching staff knows it and our management knows it. We believe in ourselves."
Motte said: "Winning fixes a lot of things. The momentum going into the break is good."
The Canucks’ next game is Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers play Friday against the Calgary Flames.