ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Vancouver Canucks are the anti-snowbirds.
They don’t go to Florida to have fun and enjoy life. They leave the Sunshine State to do that in the north.
More than their wardrobe changed when they left South Florida after two embarrassing losses last week and returned to winter. With snow lightly falling here Sunday, the Canucks beat the Minnesota Wild 4-1 about 27 hours after dusting the Buffalo Sabres 6-3.
Sweeping the back-to-back matinees – always a challenging road start time for teams from the Pacific time zone – the Canucks are suddenly 2-2 on a five-game National Hockey League tour that began with 9-2 and 5-2 losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
What the Canucks proved on the weekend, besides an ability to actually manage the puck and limit opposition scoring chances, was their growing resilience. They’ve developed some mental armour, and are learning to manage their emotions as well as the puck to play themselves out of trouble.
Back in November, it would have been hard for the Canucks to get outscored 14-4 over two games and then win the next two. Of course, it’s hard to get outscored 14-4 over two games, period.
“The thing I like about our group is it’s a group you can be very honest with,” coach Travis Green said Sunday after the Canucks moved eight points clear of the Wild in the Western Conference playoff race. “They take criticism. You don’t have to necessarily yell it through to them. They can take criticism and take it to heart and come back and give honest efforts, which is what you really want from your team.”
“Florida wasn’t our game; I think we knew that wasn’t us,” winger J.T. Miller said. “We just knew we had to right the ship, go into two hard building to play in and find a way. And for 60 minutes, the last two games, we’ve played really good hockey. That’s our identity as a team. We needed to respond. I think that was important and it shows a lot about the team.”
The Canucks restricted the Wild to 24 shots, and a pile of those came at the end when Minnesota was attacking six-on-five while trailing 3-1. Including the 28 shots the Sabres generated, Vancouver allowed barely more in the two weekend games than they did in Thursday’s loss to the Panthers, who finished with 49 shots on net.
Vancouver rarely looked in trouble against Minnesota after a flurry of second-period scoring gave them a two-goal lead. Within that eventful four minutes, the most impressive thing was how the Canucks responded to the Wild’s tying goal by re-taking the lead just 13 seconds later, then scoring another 1:12 after that.
The suddenly-cold Canucks’ power play sputtered again but did produce the opening goal at 9:20 of the middle period when Quinn Hughes purposely shot the puck on to the blade of Elias Pettersson’s stick for a tip-in that made it 1-0.
Marcus Foligno bunted in a tying goal at 11:58, stepping in front of Brock Boeser to get to a spring-loaded rebound off goalie Jacob Markstrom. But the Canucks attacked directly from the ensuing faceoff and when Wild defenceman Matt Dumba foolishly deflected Tanner Pearson’s sharp-angle shot, handcuffing Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk, Bo Horvat tapped the loose puck into an open net.
Miller then wonderfully set up Troy Stecher for the 3-1 goal at 13:23. Markstrom made his best saves of the night in the final two minutes before Horvat scored into an empty net.
“Not a good week in Florida,” Pettersson said. “We talked about it, like, we can’t play like this or we’re not going to be able to get where we want to. We’re always honest with each other. We were before the game in Buffalo. We wanted to work hard and be predictable to your teammates. I think we were.”
“That’s where the leadership is very helpful on this team,” Miller said. “The coaches and leadership are constantly saying when it’s not going well, ‘keep it simple, move the pucks north and be direct. If you don’t have the puck, make them go 200 feet. Don’t give them the offence.’ It’s more fun when we’re playing the right way.”
Horvat, the Canucks’ captain, led by example with a four-point weekend. Miller also had four points in the two games. The only Canucks player whose weekend rivalled theirs was Markstrom, the goalie who won twice in two days by stopping 48 of 52 shots.
Vancouver’s road trip ends Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, whose 1-0 loss Sunday to the Nashville Predators left them two points behind the Canucks in the playoff race.
It was amazing how much better the Canucks looked the last two days than the previous four in the sunshine.
“Emotions are pretty even keel right now,” Stecher said. “Guys aren’t getting too high, guys aren’t getting too low. You just look at our division and how tight it is; there’s really no time to celebrate or dwell (on anything). You’ve just got to get ready for the next game.”
• The Hughes-to-Pettersson goal could be a preview for the NHL All-Star Game in two weeks. Pettersson, 21, was named to the Pacific Division team while the rookie Hughes, 20, was voted “last man in” by fans.
“There are a lot of good players in that division, and a lot of hockey markets,” Hughes said. “So I wasn’t really sure what the odds were, but just to know that we have that support – and not only me but the team in Vancouver – it’s pretty cool.”