VANCOUVER – “I love beating the Leafs,” Bo Horvat said. “There’s nothing better. All the Leafs fans back home, all my buddies and stuff. . . I like beating the Leafs.”
We’d have put that quote even higher but there’s not much room before the first paragraph.
Horvat is from Rodney, Ont., near London. He grew up cheering for the Detroit Red Wings and has spent all of his National Hockey League so far with the Vancouver Canucks. On the West Coast, he hasn’t grown any fonder of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
His sentiment is in perfect harmony with his environment. Out here, the Maple Leafs are about as popular as pipelines, except for the many thousands of Ontario transplants who cheer for them and transform visits by the Leafs to Rogers Arena into the hockey equivalent of West Side Story.
Thankfully, there isn’t any actual fighting among fans, which would be tricky anyway because everyone is dressed in blue and it’s hard to tell one side from another. Plus, any genuine animosity among both sets of fans is probably saved for the Montreal Canadiens.
But the Canucks still love beating the Leafs. Truth be known, they’d have been happy to beat anyone on Wednesday, when the Leafs’ annual visit to Vancouver became a referendum on the Canucks’ character.
The Canucks won the referendum and the game, overcoming a two-goal, third-period deficit to win 3-2 on Alex Edler’s quick shot from the top of the left-wing circle that eluded Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen at 3:11 of overtime.
The win was a bonus. The effort and drive were essential after the Canucks, free-falling out of the playoff race with a 3-8-3 record the previous month, were putrid in a 3-0 loss Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights, who outshot Vancouver 48-19 and could have won by triple their margin.
Canucks coach Travis Green questioned not only his players’ effort, but their desire.
“I thought we had some guys that weren’t hungry enough,” he said.
Which brought them to Wednesday. Unlike the Leafs, the Canucks aren’t going to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But to have any hope of doing so next season – or any season – they have to compete and battle. They have to be hungry.
Against the Maple Leafs, they were starving.
“It’s kind of been this way all year,” said Vancouver defenceman Troy Stecher, who logged 27:47 of ice time defending against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and John Tavares. “There haven’t been too many games where we weren’t very happy. For the majority, we put a good effort in every night. So I don’t question the character in this room or our belief.
“I think every guy enjoys coming to the rink every day and being around each other. Tonight, I think that transferred on to the ice; the guys were playing for each other. That’s a good feeling.”
We’ll see how they feel late Thursday after they play their second game in two nights against Connor McDavid and the Oilers in Edmonton. But the Canucks came to play against the Leafs, outshooting them 15-8 in the first period and rallying in the third.
“Collectively, as a group, we challenged each other,” defenceman Alex Biega said. “That was unacceptable in Vegas. We have to understand what makes us successful. And it’s really simple: working hard and skating. We did that tonight.”
There was a lot of talk among players and the coaching staff – and everyone who follows the Canucks – about the response they needed on Wednesday.
“We never really talked about playoffs, never really talked about winning and losing,” Biega said. “We talked about how we have to play, the culture we have to establish. Tonight was evidence of that.”
Ron Hainsey and Morgan Rielly scored goals 34 seconds apart midway through the second period to put Toronto up 2-0. Hainsey was set up by Marner on a shorthanded three-on-one that began with Markus Granlund getting his shot blocked, while Rielly scored short-side on goalie Jacob Markstrom after Derrick Pouliot lost the puck deep in the Vancouver zone.
But long, lost Loui Eriksson snatched a goal for the Canucks on a quick backhand at 2:21 of the third period. And 112 seconds later, former Leaf Josh Leivo tied it by blowing a wrist shot past Andersen’s blocker.
Toronto’s goalie looked poor on Edler’s winner, but the Canucks defenceman looked terrific. The career Canuck is a potential unrestricted free agent on July 1 and there is a degree of uncertainty about his future, even as Edler and the team try to negotiate a contract extension.
But his value was evident on Wednesday. He was a beast, physical and mobile and always out against Toronto’s best players, then scoring the winner from 40 feet after a stretch pass by Brock Boeser.
“I think you knew before the game that the effort was going to be there,” Edler said of his team. “That’s what we talked about. That was the biggest thing, the biggest difference from last game.
“We’ve been realizing more and more this season about what makes us successful, how we play when we play good and how important every guy is. We need all the guys every single game. You have to learn that you’re not going to feel great every game, but you have to push through it and still get up for the challenge and do your job for your teammates.”
He showed them how.