VANCOUVER -- J.T. Miller is so good, he hurts.
His combination of speed, skill and strength can be punishing. At his best, Miller is one of the top power forwards in the NHL, a beastly throwback to days when players hurt the opposition in front of the net and in the corners.
The Vancouver Canucks winger is so good in peak form that much less than that makes him an infuriating figure to his own team’s fans. Miller is like a comic-book superhero whose powers are formidable whether applied towards good or evil.
He is an influencer, always part of the conversation in Vancouver.
Matched up head-to-head against one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ supermen, John Tavares on Saturday, Miller played one of his finest games since a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning nearly two years ago brought him into the unyielding glare of a Canadian hockey market.
Miller scored the winning goal, assisted on two others, registered four shots, three hits and logged 22:42 of ice time to drive the Canucks to their first third-period comeback this season and a 4-2 win against the Maple Leafs.
Oh, and the winger did this while replacing injured Canucks star Elias Pettersson as the centre on a first-line that generated goals for Miller, Brock Boeser and Nils Hoglander.
The two-game sweep of the best team in Canada gave the Canucks their first consecutive wins since January, and the Leafs their first consecutive losses in regulation time.
“It feels pretty awesome and we know it in there,” Miller told reporters on a Zoom call after emerging from the Canucks dressing room. “It means a lot to us. We take a lot of pride in beating a team like that at home twice when we really need wins. We talked a lot over the last three weeks or so about playing well but not getting the results. We've shown that we can beat anybody in the league, and we still believe that even though the record wouldn't necessarily show it. But it feels pretty awesome.”
The Canucks bench exploded when Bo Horvat tipped in Boeser’s power-play wrist shot to tie the game at 8:49 of the third period, and again 42 seconds later when Miller whacked a loose puck behind Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen after Boeser’s shot broke the stick of Toronto defenceman T.J. Brodie and wobbled to his Vancouver linemate.
Hoglander then lasered a shot under the bar during a three-on-one at 16:53 after a turnover by Mitch Marner, another of the Leafs’ stars. Toronto's Hart Trophy co-favourite, Auston Matthews, did not register a point in Vancouver.
Halfway through their 56-game schedule, it’s a little late for the Canucks to be looking for turning points. They’re 11-15-2 and have little likelihood of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.
But after going 0-13-1 the first 14 games before Saturday in which they trailed after two periods, and sweeping one of the NHL’s best teams – and certainly the best one playing in the Canadian division – the victory felt like a launchpad for a much better second half.
“I think the second half is going be a lot better, (but) we need to continue to find ways to get wins right now,” Boeser said. “It was tough when you win one and you lose one, but to string two together against a team like this, a really solid hockey team, I think it just gives our team confidence.”
“I think it'll give us confidence,” coach Travis Green said. “I do think our team has been feeling good about their game. They haven't been getting the results. And that's been probably a mental fight with themselves. Even when you know you're playing well and you haven't won, it does get a little bit draining on you mentally. So this should help, hopefully. But I think our group also believes that they're a good team and they can play with anyone.”
For what it’s worth, the Canucks’ 11 wins have been scattered across the six other teams in the division.
The Montreal Canadiens, who contributed to the Canucks’ nadir during Vancouver’s 0-5 visit to Montreal and Toronto a month ago, visit Rogers Arena for games Monday and Wednesday.
The Canucks would love to show the Canadiens their new-and-improved selves – the resilient, confident group that just swept the Leafs, that is getting big goals from its power play and elite goalkeeping from Thatcher Demko, whose 37 saves on Saturday included nine in a row early in the third period when Toronto led 2-1.
“There has been a lot of talk locally, in our media, about what we're doing (before the trade deadline), trading players, stuff like that,” Green said. “We haven't let any of that in our room. Our players don't want to hear that, our coaches don't want to hear that. It's only been half the season. We know that we probably should have a few more wins, and we (could) be having a lot of different conversations.”
“It could be a big turning point,” Miller said. “But we're not going to look too far. We're just going to enjoy tonight and get ready for the next one.”