VANCOUVER – When J.T. Miller had his finest moment of this tumultuous season, speaking truth to power during the Vancouver Canucks’ COVID crisis to tell the National Hockey League it wasn’t yet safe to play, some fans were so moved by his bravery they declared he could be captain.
Tuesday, he demonstrated why he can’t be.
For all his emotion and directness and evolution as a player, his ability to exert his will on games when these traits are properly channelled, the 28-year-old is not the player whose example you want others to follow.
With the injury- and coronavirus-weakened Canucks nobly battling again, and leading the Edmonton Oilers 1-0 late in the second period, Miller had on successive shifts a turnover, a tantrum and careless penalty.
By the end of this unnatural hat trick, the Oilers had pumped in three goals in less than five minutes and were on their way to a 4-1 victory at Rogers Arena.
And the fourth Edmonton goal, by the way, was scored late in the third period after Miller threw a blind behind-the-back pass at the Oilers’ blue line that was picked off and turned into an outnumbered rush.
With Elias Pettersson injured indefinitely, Miller is easily the Canucks’ most impactful forward. We’ve seen him win games. But he played the biggest part in losing this one as the Canucks’ streak reached six-straight regulation losses.
This funeral procession of a stretch drive has nine games left for Vancouver, which plays another two games against Connor McDavid’s team on Thursday and Saturday.
In Monday’s 5-3 loss to Edmonton, Miller made the best individual play of the night when he powered past two Oilers before roofing a backhand in tight.
Twenty-four hours later, he made the game’s costliest play when, after the Canucks escaped one McDavid rush, Miller collected the loose puck, saw traffic ahead of him at the sideboards and immediately and without looking reversed it straight back to McDavid.
One Edmonton superstar quickly set up the other as Leon Draisaitl tied it 1-1 at 14:29 of the middle period.
On his next shift, Miller was a step slow to move with Tyson Barrie across the front of the Vancouver goal and high-sticked the Oiler while trying to lift his stick as the teams skated four-on-four.
A four-on-three power play may as well be a two-man advantage for McDavid and Draisaitl, who combined in the same order for Edmonton’s go-ahead goal at 17:25.
And with Miller still serving his penalty, the Oilers’ power play made it 3-1 at 19:13 when Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko was slow to pick up Evan Bouchard’s shot through traffic.
We get it: a single player is rarely solely responsible for winning or losing in a team spot. But when your best player is making these kinds of mistakes, how can you possibly win?
“Would I like to see those turnovers not happening tonight? For sure,” Canucks coach Travis Green said, bristling at a question about not benching Miller. “I also have a player in the room that's not very happy about himself, either. And he's down and he's ultra competitive. He's a smart hockey player. He knows when he makes mistakes. He's also a big engine on our team.
“I can bench him, I guess. But I also want to win the game, too, and our team wants to win. And I'm the one who makes that call whether to bench him or not, and I didn't. I will talk to him tomorrow. I will talk to him before the next game. We will help him along like we do with all our players. But I don't worry about J.T. Miller. He's done a lot of good things for our team since he's got here. He made some mistakes tonight, he has made some before and he'll make more mistakes. But this guy wants to win -- make no bones about it -- he plays hard, and I'll go to bat for him.”
He just did.
Outscored 26-10 during their losing streak, the Canucks got their only goal 34 seconds into the game when Nils Hoglander’s pass on a two-on-one caromed off teammate Brock Boeser’s skate and past Edmonton goalie Mike Smith.
But the happiest part of the Canucks’ night was that another bright prospect, defenceman Jack Rathbone, played his first NHL game.
The former college star at Harvard University who began his rookie pro season on the Canucks’ taxi squad, then went to the minor-league Utica before being recalled by Vancouver and serving yet another quarantine, logged 12:04 of ice time.
The 21-year-old survived a second-period two-on-one against McDavid and Draisaitl and also made a deft drag move along the boards to generate a better angle for his only shot on goal.
“There's definitely days where you kind of second guess yourself,” Rathbone said of leaving Harvard a year ago as the pandemic hit. “But the last six months, I feel like I've taken advantage of the opportunity I've been given at the pro level and was just really excited to hopefully work for this day to come. I'm happy it did. I can't thank my mom and dad enough; a pretty cool early Mother's Day gift, I guess.
“It was a dream come true.”