EDMONTON — By the time the Vancouver Canucks open their round-of-16 playoff series Wednesday night against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, it will be nearly five days since they eliminated the Minnesota Wild.
J.T. Miller’s vocal chords have needed every minute of rest.
Miller is on a roll, and so are the Canucks, which means the power winger and key leader will be bellowing out the lineup card again for coach Travis Green on Wednesday.
“It’s not usually that fiery,” Green told Sportsnet. “He had the music keyed up and it was pretty good. I was chuckling as I was walking out of the room.”
A half-million viewers – and counting – have chuckled since the NHL released the viral video of Miller going full-on WWE to pump up teammates in the dressing room before they beat the Wild 5-4 Friday in overtime for the Canucks’ first playoff series win since 2011.
Green often asks a player to announce the starting lineup. If the team wins, the same player reads the lineup card next game and keeps going until the Canucks lose. So Miller has been testing eardrums since Game 2, one week ago, when Vancouver stowed its nervy start to the Stanley Cup tournament and took control of its qualifying series against Minnesota.
On Friday night, Miller had Swedish band Europe’s 1986 anthem “Final Countdown” — released before any Canucks except Loui Eriksson and Jay Beagle were even born — blaring through the dressing room as he stormed around yelling out the starters.
“That was something new,” Green said. “It was great. The guys had never done something like that. I thought it was just really good because it loosened up the group. As a staff, we want the guys to enjoy themselves. It’s important for players to have fun. There’s being too loose, and then there’s being loose enough so we’re not nervous.”
Ten players in the Canucks’ 20-man lineup Friday hadn’t experienced an NHL playoff game until last week, but the team hasn’t looked nervous since its jittery 3-0 loss to the Wild in Game 1.
They closed out the qualifying series with three straight wins and= Friday came back from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits, rescuing starting goalie Jacob Markstrom after one of his poorest games this season when veteran defenceman Chris Tanev – “Tequilaaaaaaaa!” according to Miller three hours earlier – scored 11 seconds into overtime.
For people outside British Columbia, it’s difficult to fathom what that series win means for the Canucks, who were completely and painfully rebuilt since they last made the playoffs in 2015 and during the last four years lost more games than any team except the Buffalo Sabres. OK, maybe people in Toronto understand.
With young cornerstone players like Bo Horvat, 25, Brock Boeser, 23, Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, still getting better, the team’s future looks blindingly bright. But the Canucks are just now learning to win. And when they ran into their first playoff hurricane last week, this inexperienced group did not retreat or get blown away.
They’re probably not as good as the Blues, but in the make-believe world of the round-robin tournament, the Blues didn’t look as good as the Blues, either. The Canucks packed a lot of growth into four games against the Wild, and they are a dangerous, confident team.
“I thought in Game 1 we were really nervous,” Green said. “We talked about that (next day). I thought our team was really down that we lost, too. We talked about embracing it and being excited to play. Don’t be nervous to play. You need to take these challenges head-on. You need to develop that attitude as a group that it’s OK to be nervous, but face your challenges head-on and be excited about them.
“That first game, I was surprised how it affected us when I went into the room to get a feel for where the guys were at. ‘Why are they so down, what’s going on?’ That was probably just a little bit of the buildup and how badly they wanted to win. But a lot of them hadn’t been there before.
“We said to them: ‘If we win Game 2, we’re going to win the series.’ I really believed that. We had more to give, we were a better team. It’s funny what belief does with a group where a lot of them hadn’t been there before.”
The Canucks were supposed to be overmatched at 5-on-5 against the Wild, but defended their goal area as well as they have this season. Not only did Vancouver’s young stars elevate, so too did their experienced players, including veterans like Brandon Sutter, Beagle and Eriksson who are often disparaged for failing to perform to their contracts.
“We said all along we were going to draft skill and we were going to surround them with character players and people,” general manager Jim Benning said. “That was our plan ever since I came here.
“When we talk about development, it’s about being able to play in the league and be successful in the regular season. But ultimately, it’s about doing the things that are important to winning in the playoffs. I know it has taken a little bit longer than what I would have wanted it to take. But now that we’re in the playoffs and the experience these young players are getting, it’s just going to make them better and better players going forwards.”
The Canucks used 24 players against the Wild – depth was also supposed to be an issue – and on Friday had six of their own first-round picks in the lineup: Horvat (2013), Jake Virtanen (2014), Boeser (2015), Olli Juolevi (2016), Pettersson (2017) and Hughes (2018).
“I was really happy for our group that we won, but I want us to continue,” Benning said. “St. Louis won the Stanley Cup last year and they have a real good team. But I want our guys to feel like they can go in that series and if they work and compete, we can give St. Louis a good series. For me, the work’s not done yet. I’ll wait until we get further along before I start celebrating.”
Cue the intros. It’s Miller time.