VANCOUVER – When the short form of your first name rhymes with boo, it’s always possible to fool yourself into thinking fans aren’t really angry with you. For a change, Loui Eriksson doesn’t have to kid himself.
The $36-million man, a pariah at the start of this season and potentially nearing his final days as a Vancouver Canucks player only a month ago, Eriksson has become an improbable feel-good story on the team.
Well, maybe year 34 is just a feel-not-as-bad story. But the Swede delivered his best three weeks as a Canuck prior to the bye week and NHL All-Star break. Just in time.
When Eriksson scraped in a goal during Saturday’s 4-1 win against the San Jose Sharks – the Canucks’ 11th win in 14 games – there was a genuine roar from the crowd at Rogers Arena. It was a cheer that went beyond mere goal-recognition.
After Thursday’s 3-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes, Canucks Twitter honoured Eriksson by soundtracking the slow-motion replay of him chasing down and pushing over defenceman Jason Demers to retrieve a puck and make a beautiful saucer pass to Tanner Pearson for an empty-net goal. Chariots of Fire was the perfect song.
The crowd is suddenly on Eriksson’s side.
Three-and-a-half years after accepting the Canucks’ huge free-agent offer, the winger has finally become valuable (and popular) as the defensive specialist on a shutdown line with two-way forwards Pearson and Bo Horvat.
“It’s fun playing with those two in big moments of the game, playing against tough lines and trying to prevent them from scoring,” said Eriksson. “You never know what can happen in this game. I think I’ve been doing a good job of keeping my head up and working hard. Now I’m finally getting a chance to play in a more important role, and we’ve been doing a good job.”
Until winger Josh Leivo fractured his knee cap on Dec. 19, Eriksson appeared destined for waivers and an assignment to the Utica Comets. Despite injuries to forwards Brandon Sutter and Micheal Ferland, Eriksson had been healthy-scratched for seven straight games.
In all, coach Travis Green had removed Eriksson from the lineup five times, and the untradeable veteran who scored only 32 goals in his first three seasons in Vancouver had dressed for just 17 of the Canucks’ first 36 games.
But on Dec. 21, Eriksson came down from the press box and was paired with Horvat and Pearson in a shutdown role against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 13 games, the trio has been the Canucks’ best line.
Offensive numbers for Horvat and Pearson have spiked. Horvat has six goals and 14 points during the last 10 games, Pearson five and 13. Their expected goals-for percentages, which factors shot quality, have soared to 59.3 and 62.6 per cent from their season averages of 48 and 52.3, respectively.
“Pearse and I were talking about it the other day, we can always count on him to be there defensively,” Horvat said of Eriksson. “He’s always above (the puck), always in the right position. He’s on his wall and gets pucks out of the zone and gets pucks to us. He has complemented our line really well.”
“I feel great out there,” Eriksson said. “I’m trying to make some plays and be responsible in our defensive zone. It’s probably nice for Bo and Pearse to know they’re playing with someone who plays good defence. And if they want to go (on the attack), I can be their backup.”
Eriksson, Horvat and Pearson have combined for six empty-net goals, indicative of how much Green trusts the trio late in games and how often the Canucks have been winning since the line was constructed.
Eriksson has four goals and nine points in the last 13 games, and six times has logged more than 15 minutes of ice time. In his first 17 games this season, he surpassed 15 minutes only once and 10 times finished in single-digit minutes.
This has been a startling turnaround for Eriksson, who asked for a trade last spring – an impossibility given his salary – and first lost his place in Green’s lineup in the second game of the season.
“I’m happy for him,” Horvat said. “He’s getting put out there in really big situations and at the start of the year he wasn’t even in the lineup. I think he’s handled it the best anybody could handle it. He’s been positive. For him to stick with it and do what he’s done, it’s awesome to play with him. It is fun. When you’re playing well and you’re winning and having success as a line, it’s always fun. You can’t wait to get to the rink, can’t wait to play.”
Eriksson, of course, had to wait to play.
“I knew there was a risk it was going to be like this,” he said. “I was a little bit ready for it. All you can do is try to work hard in practice, and when you get the chance you go out there and do everything you can. Now I get a chance to play with those two and it’s been going really well. I just have to keep doing it.”
For the Canucks’ week-long break, Eriksson joined his wife and four children at the family home in Dallas, where he spent his first seven NHL seasons and has his happiest memories as a player. Finally, he carried a few happy memories from Vancouver, too.