The National Hockey League team, as exciting as it is unpredictable, squandered another multi-goal lead in the third period on Saturday afternoon but still beat the Buffalo Sabres 6-5 in overtime on J.T. Miller’s power-play rocket.
It was a wild, rollicking game suitable for “1980s Night” at Rogers Arena, where the Canucks celebrated 50 years in the NHL by wearing retro black, gold and red against their expansion cousins. The main difference from the 1980s is that the Canucks actually won.
They did so with Horvat, their captain and two-way centre, in the quiet room after the NHL’s concussion spotters saw what referees Ghislain Hebert and Garret Rank did not: a blindside hit to the head by Buffalo defenceman Brandon Montour with a little more than five minutes remaining in the third period.
With Horvat unavailable to take critical faceoffs and defend a late lead, Sabre Marcus Johansson’s deflection tied it 5-5 with 59 seconds remaining in regulation time and Buffalo skating six against five.
“I couldn’t see the end of the game, and that’s probably what was bugging me the most,” Horvat said. “You’re put in a quiet room and it feels like you have no contact with the outside world. It sucks to be in that position, but they’re doing it to keep players safe and you have to go through the process.
“(But) it’s frustrating. You have a hit like that, there’s no penalty, and they still pull you off the ice.”
Fortunately, Horvat was fine and, by the end, so were the Canucks because Miller scored four-on-three at 3:21 of extra time after Hebert and Rank ended a streak of five consecutive calls against Vancouver by penalizing Sabre Henri Jokiharju for interference.
The whistle went only after teammate Jack Eichel had collected the loose puck and scored what appeared to be a Buffalo game-winner, several seconds after Jokiharju got his stick in the feet of Canuck Jake Virtanen.
“Not really my spot normally, but I just tried to rip it,” Miller said of his winning one-timer from the right-wing circle. “Sometimes you get lucky. That’s it, really.”
Obviously, they also get unlucky because the Canucks blew a 5-3 lead in the final 10 minutes on Saturday, 10 days after choking on a three-goal, third-period lead in Pittsburgh and losing that game to the Penguins 8-6 in regulation time.
On Oct. 25, the Canucks built a 5-1 lead on the Washington Capitals before losing 6-5 in a shootout after getting outscored 3-0 in the third period.
“We’re learning,” Miller insisted. “I think the (term) ‘blow a lead’ can be deceiving sometimes. We didn’t blow a lead (today). We didn’t make a ton of high-risk plays, just a couple of coverage things. They made some good plays, shot it bar-down, got a shot through five people. We’re not going to overthink it but we’re definitely conscious about playing the right way with the lead.”
The Canucks are remarkable. They’re only in a position to blow these leads because they have the talent and aggressiveness to build them.
Saturday was the 13th time in 30 games this season that Vancouver has scored at least five goals. They were third in the NHL in scoring after winning for the third time in four games since their 3-7-2 struggle through November.
The Canucks are not young, but their core players are, so the team is volatile. With a handful a mid-career players added to the group over the summer, everything is as new to these Canucks as Saturday’s uniforms were.
As Miller said, they are learning as they go. If they keep doing enough things well to stay in a playoff spot, the Canucks hope that by April they’ll have learned enough to be able to close out tight games and to execute under pressure by making smart plays simply.
“You’ve got to be able to hold those leads,” Horvat said. “I think we’re doing a good job scoring goals, but we can still tighten up a little bit defensively.”
A little bit?
“We’ve talked about it the last few weeks, no matter what the situation is in a game… we want to keep pushing the same way,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “They made a little push at the end, but the way we stuck with it when we went into overtime was great to see.”
One of the key off-season acquisitions, Myers made his first goal as a Canuck a big one when he outskated Jokiharju to chip in a beautiful pass from Miller for a shorthanded goal at 4:51 of the third period that extended Vancouver’s lead to 5-3.
“Stop it,” Roussel said when the math was explained to him.
The Canucks never trailed in the game, but never did they look at ease with the lead after they went up 2-0 early in the second period. Eichel had two assists for Buffalo, but the Sabres’ star was held to just one shot on net in 24:35 of ice time.
“I don’t think that’s exactly what coach wants,” Canuck rookie Quinn Hughes said of the tumultuous third period. “The 5-3 lead, the whole team really wanted the win there. But a win’s a win and as the season goes on, I think we’ll keep getting better at that. We’ve got a really persistent group. So when we’re down, we don’t think we’re out. And when we’re up and they tie it up like that, we stay in it.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs visit Vancouver on Tuesday.