Canucks' renewed mental fortitude produces most impressive win yet

Bo Horvat led Vancouver's comeback by scoring two goals, including the eventual game-winner in the final minute of the third period, and the Canucks rallied to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3.

VANCOUVER -- A team that was too fragile mentally to win, suddenly believes it can’t lose.

All it took to turn around the Vancouver Canucks was a new coach, a new general manager, a new outlook and five wins in nine nights on home ice. The awakening of their best players has helped, too.

The most impressive feat yet by Bruce Boudreau’s re-born Canucks was Tuesday’s 4-3 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, when Vancouver overcame a three-goal deficit and the unsettling return of the COVID-19 virus that decimated the team last spring.

After an awful opening period that saw the Canucks fall behind 3-0 and lose defenceman Tucker Poolman, who was ordered off the ice and became the fourth Vancouver player sent into the National Hockey League’s COVID protocol, the Canucks outshot the Blue Jackets 31-11 and outscored them 4-0.

They won it on captain Bo Horvat’s redirection of J.T. Miller’s diagonal, laser pass on a power play with 59 seconds remaining.

The Canucks killed their only penalty over the final 35 seconds, as the Blue Jackets skated six against four, and joyfully mobbed Jaroslav Halak at the end as the goalie finally picked up his first win for Vancouver in his sixth start of the season.

This was the “after” picture of the Canucks since Travis Green was fired as coach and Jim Benning as general manager on Dec. 5.

The “before” picture, just two weeks earlier, would have been the Canucks blowing a third-period lead on the road against the Boston Bruins by yielding two late power-play goals to deprive Halak of what should have been his first win.

As we said at the time, there is an inertia to both winning and losing -- and the Canucks, before and after, are living proof of this inexact science.

They are 5-0 since Boudreau took over. They are suddenly within two games of .500 and four points of a wildcard playoff spot that felt as close as Pluto just six games ago.

“I just think we believe in each other,” Horvat said after his winning goal brought the loudest cheer from a Rogers Arena crowd since the pandemic arrived. “I think a lot of guys are playing really good hockey right now. Obviously, there's just a new life, a new energy in the room and it's kind of showing on the ice. A lot of the guys are buying in and doing the little things to help us win. I just find this team right now has no quit. When you have confidence and you gain confidence with your linemates and your teammates and everybody out there, it's a good recipe and we showed that tonight.”

The joy among Canucks players would have been muted post-game by the sobering reminder that four of them -- Poolman, Brad Hunt, Juho Lammikko and Luke Schenn -- have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last three days.

The Canucks were the National Hockey League team hit hardest by the coronavirus last season, when 21 players and four staff members eventually tested positive for the frightening P.1 variant in early April, before vaccines were widely available to anyone but the elderly and immuno-compromised.

The team is scheduled to travel Wednesday to San Jose to play the Sharks on Thursday.

Coach Boudreau said the players might be tested five times each on Wednesday. He was kidding, but the organization is trying to be proactive.

But the use of Poolman in Tuesday’s first period, before his positive result from morning testing arrived after faceoff, illustrated how dangerous the threat of transmission and how imperfect NHL testing protocols are.

It is impossible to demand rapid, accurate results in all 32 markets because lab capacities and capabilities vary from city to city. But when an outbreak is possible, it seems reckless that the league would allow players to participate in games without clarity on their COVID status. According to The Athletic, rapid tests the Canucks conducted before the game are believed to have identified Hunt as positive, but the more accurate PCR test results that flagged Poolman didn’t arrive until after the game had started.

“It's scary,” Horvat said. “I mean, it just feels like deja vu all over again. We want to make sure everybody's healthy, and hopefully the vaccine's working and they're not feeling too sick. Obviously, the safety of the players is what comes first, and that's what we've got to take the priority from.

“We obviously didn't get off to the start we wanted tonight. I don't know if it was just a lot going on. But we stayed mentally tough, battled through it and got the job done in the second and third.”

The Elias Pettersson-Conor Garland-Vasily Podkolzin line drove the third-period comeback, producing goals four-and-a-half minutes apart to erase a 3-1 Columbus lead.

Garland appears at times to have more than one stick, so relentless and quick is he at reaching through players to pilfer pucks. He stole one from Columbus defenceman Jake Bean a couple of times, the second theft at the side of the net allowing him to push the puck across the crease for Pettersson to bang in at 4:07.

Pettersson started the play in the tying goal at 9:35, backing up the Blue Jackets on the rush before passing back to the blue line to Tyler Myers, who relayed to Quinn Hughes. The dynamic defenceman, playing like a Norris Trophy candidate under Boudreau, circled the Columbus net, froze goalie Elvis Merzlikins, then passed across the crease (and through the skates of Blue Jacket Jakub Voracek) for Podkolzin to score into a semi-open net.

For the line’s next shift, the whirling Garland merely drew a hooking penalty from Vladislav Gavrikov for the game’s first power play. On the second power play, Horvat won it from Miller’s pass.

The Canucks haven’t won six straight games in nearly two years.

But as we know, COVID can stop anything.

The Canucks may try to have two rounds of tests done on Wednesday, when it should become more apparent whether this is an actual outbreak, like the one currently afflicting the Calgary Flames, with positive results multiplying.

Everyone needs to know before Thursday’s game. Literally, before the game.

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