Struggling Canucks show excellence on power play to beat Predators

Bo Horvat scored one of Vancouver’s five power-play goals, and the Canucks beat the Nashville Predators 6-3.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Reporter to J.T. Miller after Thursday’s game: “It looked like you could have had a natural hat trick.”

Miller, deadpanning: “You’re the last guy to bring that up. Thanks. I’ve got an earful from everybody so far. It’s been great.”

Miller could afford sarcasm. The Vancouver Canucks still beat the Nashville Predators 6-3 and Miller, central to a power play that scored five goals in a game for the first time since 2011, will be able to get past a couple of open-net tap-ins that he whiffed in the second period. Miller was unhappy to score just once.

Tyler Graovac, on the other hand, was thrilled to score only one, and will remember the goal the rest of his life.

How crazy was the Canucks’ power play on Thursday?

Graovac, a 26-year-old journeyman call-up from the Utica Comets, was sent out on a National Hockey League power play for the first time in his career and managed to score his first NHL goal since a February, 2017, game for the Minnesota Wild.

“I think it was in Winnipeg,” he correctly recalled. “I felt a lot of emotions. I’ve been kind of through a process the last two or three years, trying to inch my way back to the NHL. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, injuries. There were some rebuilding years I needed to have, mentally and physically, and it just felt good for me.

“It was almost like a goal for my family, too. They’ve gone through the ups and downs with me and I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.”

Graovac’s family is from Brampton, Ont., and he now has eight NHL goals in 65 games over parts of five seasons for three organizations.

Hockey doesn’t always make sense.

With just one win in their previous eight games, the Canucks were due some bounces and power-play goals. They got those at the same time against the struggling Predators.

Graovac’s first-period deflection of Alex Edler’s point shot skipped up off the ice and over Predator goalie Pekka Rinne’s pad.

Canucks’ Brock Boeser scored off Predators defenceman Dan Hamhuis, and another Nashville blue-liner, Mattias Ekholm, appeared to deflect Elias Pettersson’s hard pass beyond Rinne. On the power-play goal he did score, Miller’s wrist shot ramped up off the stick of Viktor Arvidsson.

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All the breaks Vancouver didn’t get while going 1-5-2 seemed to even out in the first two periods, when the Canucks’ power play went five-for-six for the franchise’s most productive night with the man-advantage since a 6-2 win in Chicago more than eight years ago.

The Canucks also got an outstanding 45-save performance from goalie Jacob Markstrom, who may have talked his way back into the net after losing 6-1 Tuesday in Dallas. He stopped 21 of 22 shots in the third period when the Canucks looked quite capable of blowing a three-goal lead, but eventually clinched it on a 190-foot, shorthanded shot into an empty net by Tanner Pearson.

“It was a weird hockey game, to be honest,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “There were so many power plays the first two periods. It just felt like kind of a choppy game.”

Pettersson, 21, had a goal and two assists on the power play, while rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, 20, had three assists.

Vancouver’s power play was ranked ninth in the NHL before Thursday (23.3 per cent), but has demonstrated an ability to torch teams.

It went three-for-three against the Predators nine days earlier in the Canucks’ only other win since Nov. 2, pumped in four against the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 30, three against the Detroit Red Wings two weeks before that.

“Honestly, I’m not going to read too much into it,” Miller said. “We’re going to enjoy tonight and just move forward because we’ve done this earlier in the season a couple of times, where we’ve gotten three or four in a game, and didn’t bring our best the next game. So we’ll enjoy it . . . and hopefully make some plays next game.”

Next game is Saturday afternoon in Washington against the Capitals.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

“You hope your power play is going to be better,” Green said. “You’re happy when it’s good, and when it isn’t you keep pushing them to stay sharp. They’re a young group. They’re learning daily. They’re sharp one game, and then some games they’re off a little bit. Obviously, tonight was a big night.”

Green’s statement could be applied broadly to the Canucks. They’re not really a young team, but their foundational players are NHL infants. And some nights, mostly in October, the Canucks have been great. Many nights recently, they’ve been outplayed.

Thursday was vitally important to their morale. They didn’t play their best, but were far better than in the Dallas debacle two nights earlier. They felt good about winning, good about their power play, good about Markstrom and good about Graovac, who wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly when power-play coach Newell Brown told him he’d be on the second unit in Nashville.

“I asked Newell the same thing, to be honest,” Green said. “You know what? He made the right call. Give Newell a lot of credit. He had a feeling and sometimes you’re right.”

“I’ve never played power play in the NHL,” Graovac said. “I think I’ve played 350 AHL games and always been a No. 1 power-play and No. 1 PK guy. I’m very grateful they put me out there, and I’m happy I could produce a goal.”

So were the Canucks.

• Green remade his lines and defence pairings before the game. Top-pairing defenceman Tyler Myers was replaced by Troy Stecher, and Graovac and Zack MacEwen were brought into the lineup for their size, bumping Loui Eriksson and Sven Baertschi to the press box.

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