VANCOUVER – It was a game screaming out for fans. And a game that would have had coaches screaming.
The Canucks’ home-opener at Rogers Arena, played in front of 18,000 seats kept empty by COVID, was a mistake-filled thrill ride whose surprise ending – a Vancouver win – was desperately needed by the team that had limped home after a 1-3 road trip to start its season.
Captain Bo Horvat scored twice on the power play, as the Canucks man-advantage unit finally put some pucks in the net after a 0-for-15 start, and then beat Montreal goalie Carey Price between the pads in the fourth round of the shootout.
Vancouver, wobbling on defence with veteran Alex Edler injured and other blue-liners struggling, appeared to be headed towards its fourth straight loss when former Canuck Tyler Toffoli – who else would it be? – completed his hat trick with a deflection to give the Canadiens their first lead with only 3:49 remaining in regulation time.
But after losing a one-goal advantage four times, the Canucks displayed some resilience by making it 5-5 just 32 seconds later when Brock Boeser wired a shot from the high slot after a setup by J.T. Miller.
“It was really important,” Horvat said of a victory that was like shelter during a January gale. “We needed that win. Obviously, for standings-wise, but also for confidence. It definitely feels good to get the two points, but at the same time I think we can be better.
"We can’t be satisfied with that. We’ve just got to keep building with that, keep our confidence and come ready to play tomorrow night.”
The Canadiens, now 2-0-2 and two points clear of the Canucks in the North Division, play in Vancouver on Thursday and again Saturday.
There were some glaring faults to the Canucks performance, especially in their half of the ice.
But it was vitally important for their struggling top players to break out. Boeser matched Horvat’s two goals, Miller had three assists and defenceman Quinn Hughes had two. And although Elias Pettersson failed to register a point for a fourth straight game – double his longest “slump” from last season – he was a key part of a power play that finished 3-for-6.
And, as Horvat said, there was a huge psychological lift for a team that for the first time under Green, appeared to be slipping backwards with its surprisingly poor start.
“It definitely feels good to get finally rewarded for it,” Horvat said of a power play that was fourth in the NHL last season and expects to be at least that good again. “It was just a matter of time before one went in. Thankfully, we got it off to a good start and we just kept building from there.
"Obviously, we can’t think that’s going to be good enough. We’ve got to hold ourselves to a high standard and do it again tomorrow night.”
The power play gave the Canucks their first of four leads, scoring at 11:07 of the first with quick passing that teed up Horvat in the slot, a play that would be repeated on Horvat’s other goal early in the third.
The power play and offensive outburst, plus some timely saves by Braden Holtby in overtime, were enough to overcome the Canucks’ defensive problems.
New first-pairing defenceman Nate Schmidt conceded last weekend in Calgary that the transition from playing in Vegas has been challenging, and Travis Hamonic hasn’t looked any more comfortable than Schmidt so far in Vancouver after spending the last three seasons with the Flames.
It didn’t help Wednesday that Edler nearly stopped playing in the second period before disappearing from the bench in the third, and that rookie Jalen Chatfield was making his NHL debut for the Canucks.
Even Hughes looked suspect medically, labouring at times while being constantly targeted by the Canadiens.
The lack of cohesiveness on defence was especially evident in the second period, when the Canucks blew the lead three times on goals that were far too easy for the Canadiens.
Hamonic wandered out of position to throw a hit after Hughes had been knocked over by Joel Armia, leaving the right half of the Vancouver zone open for Toffoli to walk in on a breakaway and pick his spot over Holtby’s catching hand to tie it 1-1 at 1:37 of the middle period.
A few shifts later, Schmidt gambled and lost on an intercept in the neutral zone, giving Jeff Petry a free pass to the net. But when the Canadiens defenceman zipped the puck wide, it caromed around the boards to Tyler Motte and gave the Canucks a two-on-one.
Motte looked to pass before fooling Price with a low shot through him to restore the Vancouver lead at 4:25.
But just 62 seconds later, with Schmidt and Hamonic now paired together, the Canadiens took advantage of more poor defending and Nick Suzuki set up Toffoli for a tap-in that capped a power-play three-on-one.
The Canucks power play made it 3-2 at 11:13 when Boeser collected a rebound from his skates and scored on a quick backhand.
And still Vancouver couldn’t get out of the period with the lead. With Chatfield looking to change and caught out of position and Schmidt’s check against behind him, Tomas Tatar lasered a goalmouth pass for Brendan Gallagher to tie it again, 3-3, at 18:25.
The Canucks were ahead, then tied and eventually behind before winning. Against the Montreal Canadiens. The crowd would have loved it, faults and all.