VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks had five of their own first-round draft picks playing forward for them on Wednesday: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Brendan Gaunce, Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen. And the two who scored against the Chicago Blackhawks were Virtanen, twice, and Gaunce.
Gaunce, who once went 87 National Hockey League games and more than two years without scoring, sniped the winner in his season debut, one night after traversing the continent as an emergency minor-league call-up to replace the injured Brandon Sutter. Gaunce scored his goal on a direct pass by Blackhawk captain Jonathan Toews.
On the insurance goal in the Canucks’ 4-2 victory at Rogers Arena, Blackhawk defenceman Brandon Manning cut out the middle man by scoring into his own net, accidentally redirecting in a centring pass by Antoine Roussel, who had scored only once in nine games since signing with Vancouver as a free agent on July 1.
Did we mention Virtanen scored twice, which he had never done in an NHL game?
We tell you all this because occasionally hockey does not make much sense, although if you work as hard as the Canucks are these days, sometimes you make your own luck and the hockey gods smile upon you. Or not, because the gods also struck down another Canuck, defenceman Troy Stecher, who left the game in the third period after being hit in the head by Manning in a collision away from the puck. If Stecher is unable to play Friday against the Colorado Avalanche, he’ll be the seventh Canuck on the injured list.
And still the Canucks surprise us, improving to 8-6-0 by winning a game the Blackhawks dominated for large stretches of the first two periods. But with the score somehow tied 2-2 going into the third, it was the Canucks who seized the moment and outplayed the Blackhawks.
“Grab those two points — they’re out there waiting for us,” Roussel said of the Canucks’ mindset. “It wasn’t pretty today, but it’s still a win. We hunkered down and the guys played a good third period.
“We’ll take anybody scoring right now. We can’t rely too much on our top players. They’re great, and they’ve been carrying the team. But sometimes others have to produce. Jake came up with two big goals tonight, and Gauncey with the game-winner in the last 10 minutes, it’s huge. The guy just flew in, then all of sudden snipes one in, gets some love from the fans. It’s fun to watch.”
Yes, it is fun for the fans who watched the Canucks finish near the bottom of the NHL standings the last three seasons. Maybe they’ll finish there again in five months. But right now, missing half of their centres and their two best defencemen due to injuries, their resilience is impressive.
Gaunce embodies that resilience. A first-round pick in 2012 when Mike Gillis was the Canucks’ general manager, Gaunce cleared waivers in September when the team demoted the 24-year-old to the Utica Comets.
It seemed possible then that he might not play another game for the Canucks.
“As bad it was, I’m still lucky to play hockey,” Gaunce said after his two-point, plus-three night that was surely his best in the NHL. “I had to look at it that way — that it’s a long year and I’m going to get a chance. Mindset is a big thing in the NHL, and trying to find your identity as a player and as a person in the NHL is harder than it looks. This year, I’m a lot more confident in myself and I’m hoping that shows.”
He certainly didn’t shoot the puck with the authority he did on the winner on any of his previous five goals in 114 games.
He skated on to Toews’ errant pass into the high slot and slung a heavy wrister past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s glove to break a 2-2 tie at 9:23 of the third period. Gaunce was also credited with an assist on Manning’s own-goal, which came with the Canuck driving the net.
“I was really surprised it got me right on the blade and I just tried to get it off as quickly as I could, because I’m sure Crawford wasn’t ready for that,” Gaunce said. “Travelling across North America yesterday, I had the mindset of just trying to play (simply) today and be good with the details. First period was a little iffy, and after that I felt a little better and was more comfortable.”
It wasn’t a miracle that the Canucks were tied after 40 minutes. It was Virtanen and Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom, who made 24 saves, the majority of them in the first 28 minutes when the Canucks tested Crawford only seven times.
Virtanen, who also scored in Monday’s 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild, beat Crawford cleanly on a first-period breakaway — the Canuck was so far behind on a back-check, there was no one near him when the Blackhawks turned over the puck — and on a second-period wrist shot.
Virtanen was also noticeable for a big hit on Blackhawk Luke Johnson.
“I feel like that’s part of my game that fans and myself have been looking for,” Virtanen said of being a double threat. “I want to keep on building off that.”
So do the Canucks.