Lotto Line cashes in as Canucks finally turn corner vs. Flames

Braden Holtby stopped 35 shots as the Vancouver Canucks rolled to 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames.

Four months after chasing goalie Jacob Markstrom away in free agency, the Vancouver Canucks finally chased him from a game. With any luck, a couple of Canucks demons exited with him.

Playing better the last week but without the essential results to prove it, the Canucks won emphatically Wednesday in Calgary, beating the Flames 5-1 to win the teams’ four-game mini-series at 2-1-1.

Honestly, the Canucks could have won all four, but their finishing hadn’t caught up to Vancouver’s tighter defensive play and more connected, robust game. And they couldn’t quite clear their minds of Markstrom, who was 4-1 against his old team and had stopped 95.3 per cent of Canucks shots.

On Wednesday, they pumped five past him on 29 shots, banishing Markstrom to the bench with 14:06 remaining.

The goalie Vancouver signed to replace him, Braden Holtby, got his first start in four games and delivered his best performance so far as a Canuck, stopping 35 of 36 shots to help his team win wire-to-wire.

And yet the game was about much more than goaltending as the Canucks feasted on Flames turnovers and responded to Calgary’s only goal, a solo effort by Andrew Mangiapane that cut Vancouver’s lead to 2-1 at 18:28 of the second period, by scoring twice in 37 seconds before the period was done.

Both goals were delivered by the Lotto Line, as Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller had one of their best games of the season two nights after coach Travis Green’s criticism of Vancouver’s power play doubled as a challenge to his best players.

“As a line, we knew we needed to be better, score more goals and get more offensive zone time,” Boeser said after his three points included a sniped goal that ended Markstrom’s night at 5:54 of the third period. “I thought we did a lot better tonight of getting in on the forecheck, (forcing them to) turn the puck over, and spending time there. I think that resulted in a few goals. It was a good step for our line and we’ve got to keep it going.”

Just 15 seconds after the Canucks’ lead was cut in half, Pettersson teed up a one-timer from the high slot that Miller blistered in off the post. The trio stayed on for the faceoff at centre, and 37 second later made it 4-1 when Miller kept the puck in at the Calgary blue line and eventually centred for defenceman Nate Schmidt to score as Markstrom was caught out during a scramble.

It was a satisfying moment for Schmidt, the Canucks’ other big off-season acquisition, whose first goal in a month came the game after his own-goal cost Vancouver in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss at home. Schmidt’s attempted pass through his own crease hit a Calgary stick and banked in off Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko.

“It's just nice to put one into their net for once,” Schmidt cracked. “You talk about rebound control, I think Holtby just made sure to keep them away from me tonight.

“This game can beat you down in so many ways. You watch the game (Monday) and see, there's a lot of good things we did. Sometimes those (bad) plays get magnified, so it felt a lot better to be on the other side of it tonight.”

Canucks captain Bo Horvat scored the goal of the night – and what turned out to be the game-winner – when he knocked down a high pass from Quinn Hughes, split Flames defencemen Mark Giordano and Jusso Valimaki, and won a race to the puck against Markstrom, who came charging out like a bull from Pamplona.

Horvat was able to sidestep Markstrom and score into an open net a few minutes after a similar play saw the ex-Canuck surprise and blow up ex-teammate Tanner Pearson on a similar mad dash for the puck. Horvat’s goal came at 7:37 of the middle period, but Markstrom was as big as a 747 as he came flying at the Canuck.

“I was just trying not to get hit,” Horvat said. “That was a pretty big collision with him and Tanner. I was just trying to get my head up as quick as possible and thankfully he didn’t run me over. And thankfully it went in, too.

“I think we just keep getting better and better. It was nice to get rewarded for the chances we had tonight. Marky stood on his head a lot against us, and to finally put a couple past him, and get rewarded for a lot of hard work and chances, it definitely gives our group confidence. But we have to do that every single night.

“We’ve still got a lot of hockey left – a lot of work to do, a lot of catching up to do.”

Since their dreadful start to the season bottomed out with 7-3 and 5-1 losses in Toronto in early February, the Canucks have been the better team in their last five games. But they went only 2-2-1 in that span and, 20 games into the shortened season, have a lot of ground to make up at 8-11-1 in the North Division.

But their play – the “process” coaches talk about – did turn a corner as the Canucks took five of eight points in the Calgary series.

“I think we needed to win a game,” Holtby said when asked if he felt pressure to match Demko’s improved play this month. “I think we've put ourselves in a position where all that other stuff doesn't matter. We've got to prepare every game in order to win, to give us a chance moving forward of getting in the playoff race.”

The Canucks are still some distance from that, but closer than they were a short time ago.

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