As Canucks’ Joshua comes into his own, chemistry on third line just gets stronger 

Kevin Bieska joins Faizel Khamisa and Martine Gaillard to recap the Canucks late comeback win over the Predators, discussing Thatcher Demko's dominant performance and also Dakota Joshua stepping up with a pair of goals.

VANCOUVER — It is not entirely accurate that Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet has always liked winger Dakota Joshua.

He didn’t like him at training camp in September when Tocchet said the second-year Canuck had to “pick it up” if he wanted to keep his place on the team, explaining later that Joshua’s summer conditioning was disappointing.

And the Canuck coach didn’t like the then-26-year-old on Nov. 2 when Joshua was healthy-scratched 10 games into the regular season.

But, yes, generally, Tocchet has always liked Joshua, partly because he sees some of himself in the six-foot-three power forward who skates well, is strong on the puck, wins his battles, has surprising skill and, really, just needed someone to believe in him and push him.

The arrival of Tocchet as head coach 15 months ago benefitted the winger from Michigan as much as any individual Canuck.

On Sunday, in the second Stanley Cup playoff game of his career, Joshua was a force of nature. His two goals in the 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators included the game-winner at 9:11 of the third period, and Joshua also contributed an assist, six hits, 17:48 of ice time that included 1:55 of unblemished penalty killing, was plus-three and generated 66 per cent of expected goals at five-on-five.

Still, we can not say that Joshua and sidekick Conor Garland, centred by Elias Lindholm, was the Canucks’ best line because the J.T. Miller-Brock Boeser-Pius Suter trio was dominant territorially. But Vancouver’s third line was the most impactful one.

And it has the potential to be a massive influence on this first-round series, which continues Tuesday with Game 2 at Rogers Arena.

“He’s coming into his own as a person, like in our room and every day,” Garland, semi-permanently attached to Joshua since Tocchet took over, said after Monday’s optional practice. “And you can kind of see it coming out on the ice, too. He’s been huge for us all year.

“But we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s Game 1 and it went as well as we could have hoped as a line. But it’s going to keep getting harder and harder. They’re going to start, probably, talking about us a little bit now. They’ll try to adjust and we’ll adjust. But, you know, we could have nothing (offensively) and win and still have a good game. Last night, we got the winner and that’s great and we’ll get the publicity, but we just have to do the little things. That’s kind of what’s made us successful all year.”

The connectedness of the Lindholm line, and especially the well-established chemistry between Joshua and Garland, was evident on the winning goal.

With the chance to cause a turnover or at least stall the puck battle until help arrived, Lindholm knocked defenceman Jeremy Lauzon off the puck behind the Nashville net. Garland was on it in an instant and immediately centred to Joshua, who buried a high shot past Juuse Saros’ right shoulder as the Predators’ goalie slid left.

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On such a rapidly-developing play, how did Garland know Joshua would be there in the low slot?

“Remember, we’ve done this before,” Garland smiled. “That’s chemistry, where I know where he’s going to be. He’s going to be lurking, I know he’s going to be there. And if he’s not, he’s going to get yelled at. But he’s there. That was a tough finish, though. That’s cross-grain, that’s a tough finish. It was a big-time shot.”

It was the biggest goal for the Canucks in nine years — the eon that had elapsed since the franchise last played a Stanley Cup playoff game at home.

Lindholm, the 800-game veteran who in Calgary was a runnerup for the Selke Trophy two years ago, seems the perfect axle between Garland and Joshua, who have graduated up the Vancouver lineup under Tocchet.

The wingers were joined by Nils Aman on a line for the final third of last season. Garland and Joshua opened this season on Suter’s flanks and stayed there until the centre was injured in Montreal on Nov. 12. That allowed Teddy Blueger, just returning from his own injury, to move between Garland and Joshua, and the Life Line became the Canucks’ most consistent, play-driving unit for about two months.

After experimenting with Lindholm in various spots after his Jan. 31 acquisition from the Flames, Tocchet finally moved the two-way centre to the third line in mid-February. But it was only after Lindholm sat out seven games to heal a wrist injury, returning to the lineup for the final four games of the regular season, that Lindholm, Garland and Joshua became a force.

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“When he came back and he played that game in Arizona (on April 10), you could just tell what a man he was compared to before,” Garland said of Lindholm. “I talked to my buddies on the team after, like, how hard he is to play against. He plays a lot like Patrice Bergeron, I feel. To play with somebody like that is a privilege because you can make a mistake and he’s there. He’s a guy that lets you play free.”

After nine players participated in Monday’s optional practice, neither Lindholm nor Joshua was made available to the media.

But they were the story of Game 1, playing the biggest chunk of their five-on-five ice time — about 40 per cent — against Nashville’s Filip Forsberg-Ryan O’Reilly-Gustav Nyquist line.

“To win, you have to have a third line,” Tocchet told reporters on Monday. “I guess every team is different. I’m not saying loading up (the top six) doesn’t work. I just feel that for the way we’re built. . . whether you want to call it the third line or not. . . that’s a pretty damn good line.”

The night before, Tocchet said Sunday’s win was precisely why the Canucks acquired Lindholm.

“I just love his demeanor,” the coach said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go.’ I just think he knows how to play these type of games. Whether he goes against O’Reilly a lot or (takes) D-zone faceoffs, he’s good at that stuff, right? He knows what he’s doing. So I was never concerned about his play.”

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Tocchet also said he always believed in Joshua and thought the player could score 20 goals this season.

Joshua finished with 18 goals and 32 points and probably would have had 20 and 40 had he not missed six weeks after breaking a finger while completing a Gordie Howe Hat Trick in Chicago on Feb. 13.

Canucks president Jim Rutherford has said re-signing Joshua, who came to Vancouver from the St. Louis Blues two summers ago on a bargain free-agent contract, is a top priority.

“He’s been around in different organizations (and) I don’t know what’s happened in the past,” Tocchet said Monday. “I just think that he needed to be pushed in the right direction and in the right way. He took the criticism. He knew. Whatever the problem we had, he owned it. And look where he is now.”

“You see every day that there are good players that don’t play in this league,” Joshua told Sportsnet in October. “It’s waking up and realizing how special it is to play in the NHL every day and not letting that (entitlement) creep in.

“No one obviously likes hearing that (criticism from your coach). For him to come out and be straight up, even though I didn’t like it, that’s what I needed. And now it’s about getting on the other side of that and being somebody that he talks highly of.”


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