‘Can’t play it safe’: Canucks’ Tocchet hitting home runs this post-season

Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey chat about the Canucks shutting down the Oilers star tandem, plus the performance of Elias Pettersson in Game 5 and how it will affect in the potential series-clinching game.

VANCOUVER — If this thing doesn’t work out with the Vancouver Canucks — and being a National Hockey League coach carries the job security of a newspaper delivery person — Rick Tocchet could probably make more money batting cleanup for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tocchet has mashed for power and average while pushing the Canucks to the brink of the franchise’s fourth conference final in 54 years and the first one since 2011. 

Plus, we all know the Blue Jays need the help, although Tocchet is more likely to replace manager John Schneider than Vlad Guerrero Jr.

On Wednesday, after excoriating his team for its “passengers” while tied 2-2 in a second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers, Tocchet reminded reporters that he was here to take his cuts at the plate. Twice fired as a head coach from unwinnable situations in Tampa and Phoenix, Tocchet made it clear soon after he was hired by the Canucks 16 months ago that he would swing for the fences, not try to work the count or sneak on base with a bunt. He did not come to Vancouver to play it safe.

“I told you guys when I took the job, ‘I’m swinging the bat,’” Tocchet said Wednesday. “Like, I’m not scared. You can’t play safe if you want to win. You’ve got to go for it.”

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And then he made the most sweeping changes to his lineup since the playoffs began four weeks ago, and the Canucks responded Thursday night with their best game of the series — a 3-2 win that could have been decided a lot sooner than the final minute and by more than a single goal.

You could hear the sharp crack of Tocchet’s bat even in the deafening cauldron of Rogers Arena. 

Moving Elias Pettersson up the lineup, bringing in four new players, putting $4.75-million winger Ilya Mikheyev in the press box, and bluntly challenging his team was a 400-foot home run.

Just like handing the starting job to 23-year-old, third-string goalie Arturs Silovs (who had all of nine games of NHL experience) was a home run in the first round when the Canucks beat the Nashville Predators in six games, eliminating them with a 1-0 shutout on the road.

There have been plenty of hits in between for Tocchet and his staff, but those big decisions before Game 5 in the second round and Game 5 in the first have been the head coach’s moon shots in these playoffs.

Not expected to even make the playoffs when the season began, not expected to win the Pacific Division at the end of it, not expected to survive the surging Predators in the opening playoff round and absolutely not expected to even give Connor McDavid’s Oilers a proper series in this Stanley Cup quarterfinal, the Canucks can move to the final four with a win in Edmonton on Saturday.

No wonder Tocchet is the NHL coach-of-the-year favourite.

“I learned this from Tampa when I coached there, you’re always going to be questioned,” Tocchet said Friday before the Canucks flew to Alberta. “And if you think that way (and try to play it safe), I mean, you’re just going to second-guess yourself. I got my information, I listen to the great staff I have, and at the end of the day, I’m doing it. Maybe 10 years … maybe five, six or seven years ago, I’m probably going to listen to somebody else that I shouldn’t listen to. Or listen to the outside noise. And I haven’t been doing that. 

“Sometimes you’re successful and sometimes you’re not. And if you’re not and you’re on the wrong side of the decision, don’t be afraid to make the next decision. You’ve just got to be very decisive on your call. And I think players see that, too. If you’re kind of wishy-washy, I think the players see that.”

There aren’t many shades of grey with Tocchet. But that didn’t make his unadorned criticism of his passengers — “Some guys, I don’t know if they thought it was the playoffs. We can’t play with 12 guys” — after losing 3-2 in Game 4 on Tuesday any less risky.

There are a lot of ways professional players can respond to being publicly shamed by their coach. Thursday’s response by the Canucks was the best-case scenario.

“You always know where you stand with Toc,” Canuck winger Conor Garland, who also played for Tocchet in Arizona, said after Friday’s highly optional practice. “And that’s probably the best thing for a player. 

“I know when I play bad, and I know that you’ve got to follow it up the next day (and play better). And if it goes three or four games, you’re going to hear something. Everybody’s allowed to have an off day. I just think, if you don’t see (100 per cent) effort, that’s what will aggravate him and make him say something. I wasn’t surprised about what he said, and I don’t think many guys were surprised. I think guys knew, to a man, we had to be better. Even if you were one of the 12 guys he said was fine, we still lost that game. So, you’ve still got to be better.”

Can they be better still for Game 6? The Oilers will have to be if there is going to be a Game 7 on Monday.

“There’s different approaches,” Tocchet said of preparing for another elimination game. “For me, team meeting tonight. Do you have a team meal? There’s a lot of different things. But I think the message is: It’s going to be really hard. And that’s all you should be thinking about. Whatever it takes to get it done, you do. I’ve said it a bunch of times … we’ve really got to get back to Earth. It’s going to be our toughest game. 

“You can’t trick your brain, like … let your foot off the gas or ‘We’ve got two chances to get this done.’ You can’t think that way. You have to be mentally like a rock. And I think you rely on your teammates today to make sure that you can keep that mentality that this is our biggest game of the year, right here.”

As happened almost every time this season when Tocchet blasted his team after games, the head coach kept some distance between himself and the group on Wednesday. He let top assistants Mike Yeo and Adam Foote handle the technical stuff and allowed the players — the “culture” — to handle expectations and standards for Game 5.

“Listen … ‘You didn’t play well and you’ve got to get going’, I don’t think that’s critical,” Tocchet said Friday. “I think they understand who I am. But the next day, I’m very conscious of it. Yes, I am. And even on the game day, less is more for me. You don’t need Rick Tocchet to be talking all the time. I think that’s the way to approach it. You don’t need me 24/7. I wouldn’t want myself 24/7, either.”

No, but with two outs and the bases loaded, no one is more important to the Canucks.

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