CHICAGO – Near the end of a game the Vancouver Canucks needed, Conor Garland took even an empty-net gift and made its execution look so workmanlike it was as if the winger was breaking rock for the transcontinental railway.
Carrying the puck on a breakaway with one hand on his stick, the other arm swinging with the rhythm of an overwound clock – or maybe he was just singing a sea shanty — Garland theatrically deposited the puck into the Chicago Blackhawks’ vacant goal with 62 seconds remaining in what turned out to be a 4-1 win for the Canucks.
“Yeah, his hardest three strides of the night,” Vancouver winger Brock Boeser deadpanned for reporters.
It was a funny line and a safe one because Garland, the new buzzsaw winger from Arizona, has been skating hard since the season began.
The difference on Thursday, compared to Tuesday’s dreadful 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, is that nearly everyone on the Canucks was skating just as directly if less demonstrably.
Goalie Thatcher Demko said “statement” was the perfect word to describe the Canucks’ bounceback from a performance so poor it threatened the credibility of the three solid games that preceded it.
Trying to relaunch themselves and prove last season’s disaster was a one-off, the Canucks are now 2-2-1 on their National Hockey League season-opening (and season-long) six-game road trip that ends Saturday in Seattle in the historic first home game for the expansion Kraken.
“We’re not trying to prove anything to anyone outside of our room, but it’s important for our group to all be on the same page with that stuff,” Demko said. “I think that’s where the standards come from. Last year wasn’t good enough for our group, and we need to make sure that we’re not falling into those patterns again. Tonight was a great job to make sure that we weren’t doing that.”
The winless Blackhawks, booed off the ice at the United Center for the second time in two home games, have a lot of issues. They looked like a desperate team on Thursday. But the Canucks were far more rigid in Chicago than they’d been in Buffalo.
Demko made 29 saves, but rarely had to stop two in quick succession.
The reunited Lotto Line of Boeser, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller produced a key power-play goal for Boeser late in the second period, and Tanner Pearson’s deflection of Quinn Hughes’ savvy point shot that broke a 1-1 tie at 9:55 of the middle period was a study in determination as the Canuck battled to stay in front of the Chicago net.
A new third line of Jason Dickinson, Nils Hoglander and ex-Blackhawk Matthew Highmore played with speed and directness and generated a pretty first-period goal for Dickinson.
“We’ve got some skill in our group,” Canucks coach Travis Green said when asked about Pearson’s game-winner. “But you can’t play the game on the outside all night, and certain guys are more capable of others (on the inside) and play different types of games, I guess. It was a big goal.
“It was a good hockey game. Not a lot of mistakes made by our group. I thought we managed the puck well. We played a smart game, but a hard game, a heavy game when we needed to. There’s always certain things you’ve got to do in the game, there’s always a price to pay to win. I thought our team did that tonight.”
Green had challenged his team after the blunder in Buffalo, where he said in his post-game Zoom call that players “didn’t pay a big enough price to win.” He questioned the engagement of his forwards, and said: “there’s hard areas in the rink you have to play well in, and we didn’t do that.”
He has said a couple of times during the road trip that he needs more from his top players. It helped immensely on Thursday that arguably the top player of them all, defenceman Hughes, was back in the lineup after sitting out Tuesday with a lower-body injury.
“I like to think that I’m fairly straightforward with our group all the time,” Green said Thursday. “There’s a certain. . .style, a standard, that we want to get to. We’re still trying to develop what kind of team we are. We have a lot of new players on our team. We’ve talked about the type of team we think we need to win in the league. And I think it’s important at the beginning of the year that you do a lot of teaching, and also being honest with your group is important.”
Honestly, it will be viewed as an extremely successful start if the Canucks, flaws and all, return home on Sunday with a win in Seattle and 3-2-1 record from a difficult schedule to open the season.
There was a whiff of confidence back among the team, along with a sense of relief, late Thursday.
“That was something that we’ve been keying on the last couple of days: we want to be the engaging team, be hard, be physical, start well, play fast,” defenceman Kyle Burroughs said. “It was nice to be able to kind of execute that and come out with two points.”
The execution was as important as the points. But the points were nice, too.