J.T. Miller's return could be boost Canucks need after slow start

The Flames managed a 3-0 win over the Canucks, with Jacob Markstrom pitching the shutout against his former team in Calgary’s home opener.

It wasn’t a Sunday medical miracle that allowed J.T. Miller to suddenly rise from COVID-related quarantine and re-join the Vancouver Canucks in Calgary; it was health authorities in B.C.

Now, if the infectious disease specialists can find a way to help the Canucks’ power play and penalty killing, the National Hockey League team will feel fully healthy again.

Miller was never sick. He was just treated that way due to his close contact with teammate Jordie Benn, who is still home in Vancouver after a series of positive and negative tests for the coronavirus.

It’s not surprising that Miller is fit to play. What is a little surprising is that the team’s leading scorer from last season, a hugely influential leader on the Canucks, is back so soon when the B.C. Centre for Disease Control guidelines explicitly mandates a 14-day quarantine period for residents who are deemed to be a close contact of anyone testing positive for COVID-19.

Miller returns to the Canucks lineup Monday night against the Calgary Flames only seven days since the winger was put in quarantine and six days since the Canucks departed for their season-opening road trip without him.

“It sucks completely,” Miller said of missing the first three games, two of which the Canucks lost due to poor special-teams play. “This is my job and I train for this, and I've done three quarantines now in the last six months, so it's not ideal at all.

“But I think all you can do to stay sane is just try to enjoy the family time. That's all you can do really; it's kind of the world we live in now. Kind of a crappy year, so it was pretty fitting that I had to miss the start. But at the same time I tried to look at the positives, and I had a great time with the family.”

Asked to explain his quarantine protocol and how he is back sooner than expected, Miller said: “I understand there's a lot of interest, but I'm not really going to get into details. It's not my job to really go over that but, like I said, I was cleared and I'm here and I'm happy to be here. And that's pretty much all I want to give.

“Obviously, this thing spreads like wildfire, so I think it's important everybody's doing the things they can control. This has got to be another part of your job... watching what you're doing and being smart, sticking with your family. Just following protocol and guidelines is all we can focus on. It has been a roller coaster of emotions a little bit from the frustration standpoint.”

The NHL has guidelines, too, established in conjunction with health authorities in Canada and the United States.

The league’s Positive Tests Protocols states on page 11 that the length of the quarantine period for close contacts can be seven, 10 or 14 days depending on the “likelihood that the person has contracted COVID-19” and other factors.

“All such determinations shall be made in consultation with, or pursuant to, guidance from local public health authorities,” the document states.

Miller has tested negative every day since he arrived in Vancouver from his Pittsburgh home in December. Vancouver Coastal Health, which has regional jurisdiction over the Canucks, had to clear him to return to the team.

Miller flew to Calgary on a private jet and the NHL did not apply the seven-day travel quarantine that was required of all players returning to their NHL cities before the season.

“I wasn’t sure when we’d have him back,” Canucks coach Travis Green said.

Miller arrives just in time.

After an impressive opening-night win in Edmonton on Wednesday, the Canucks lost games to the Oilers and Flames by an aggregate score of 8-2. Vancouver penalty-killing allowed five power-play goals and, more surprisingly, a Canucks power play that finished fourth in the NHL last season is in a 0-for-11 slump.

Also indicative of Miller’s absence, star linemates Brock Boeser and, especially, Elias Pettersson have been outplayed and ineffective at even-strength apart from the third period of Game 1.

According to naturalstattrik.com, high-danger scoring chances are 13-4 for the opposition when Pettersson is on the ice and the Canucks’ best forward has an expected goals-for share of just 37.8 per cent.

“Individual play isn’t indicative of who’s in the lineup,” Green said. “Does it affect your team when certain players are hurt? Yeah, for sure. I guess how you feel as a player or team when you’re dealing with COVID, that’s a little different for everyone probably. There have been a lot of teams in the league that have probably gone through that already, and we hadn’t. But as far as a player being out of the lineup, we don’t treat it any differently than we would for any other (injury). You’ve still got to go play and win.”

Miller wasn’t the only positive news for the Canucks on Sunday. Key defenceman Alex Edler, who suffered a skate cut to his leg during the third period of Saturday’s 3-0 loss, practised with the team. Star defenceman Quinn Hughes, who logged 26:13 of ice time against the Flames, was given a maintenance day but should be fine for Monday.

If nothing else, Miller’s return will boost the Canucks psychologically.

“You just sense his presence on the ice,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “It's only been a few days but it's very noticeable that he hasn't been here. He brings a lot of energy, always barking. The group was definitely excited to see him today.”

Almost as excited as Miller was to see them.

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