Canucks’ tie-breaking win about much more than just Miller’s heroics

J.T. Miller was the hero of the night as the Vancouver Canucks forward came in clutch, scoring the game-winner with 33 seconds left in regulation to secure the 3-2 win and secure a 3-2 series over the Edmonton Oilers.

VANCOUVER — It would be easy to make this all about J.T. Miller

The guy who felt responsible for losing the last game won the next one, Thursday night, scoring with 31.9 seconds remaining to give the Vancouver Canucks a 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and move his team within one game of advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2011.

Miller is the emotional heart of the Canucks, an outspoken leader and a supremely impactful power forward who embodies the accountability and culture that coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Patrik Allvin are building. He’s also funny, self-deprecating and always available to the media. So he has earned a lot of goodwill.

When Canuck starters are introduced before home games, it is “J! T! Miller!” that the fans shout loudest.

He was a great story on Thursday. But the Canucks were full of them and their Game 5 victory that broke the 2-2 tie in this thrilling Canadian championship — teams that have taken a 3-2 lead in Game 5 have won 79 per cent of the playoff series in National Hockey League history — was about much more than Miller.

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It was about fourth-liner Phil Di Giuseppe scoring upon his return to the Canucks. He arrived from the maternity ward, from where he watched Games 3 and 4, after he and his wife, Maggie, made it to the end of a high-risk pregnancy fraught with fear and danger and brought beautiful baby Sam into the world on Sunday.

It was about Elias Pettersson, blistered with criticism for his almost unfathomably quiet first try at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, getting elevated to a line with Elias Lindholm and hearing unprompted chants of “Let’s Go, Petey!” from fans who know when they are needed. Pettersson played a key part in Miller’s last-minute winner.

It was about Vancouver penalty-killing, made to look inept in this series by one of the greatest power plays in NHL history, doing a U-turn on the road-to-ruin by killing off all five Edmonton advantages, three of them in the first 14 minutes when the Oilers already led 1-0.

And it was about a Canuck team, whose trademark resiliency is now plastered on T-shirts the players chose for themselves before the playoffs began, yet again pushing back through adversity after Tocchet declared in the wake of Tuesday’s 3-2 loss in Edmonton that Vancouver had “five or six or seven” passengers and couldn’t possibly win this second-round series with 12 players.

There were no passengers on Thursday.

“I’m sure it plays a part, yeah,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said of his coach’s public challenge and subsequent lineup changes. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in the playoffs. Game 4 was not a good night for us. You know, Rick made changes as coaches should. But I thought the guys in the room stepped up and responded. We want to be a team that does that when things don’t go our way. We did tonight.”

The Canucks have not lost consecutive hockey games since March 28. Their longest losing streak this season was four games. The second-longest was two.

Despite being largely written off outside of British Columbia as a credible opponent for the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl Oilers, they have not trailed in this series. By the way, McDri combined Thursday for one assist, four shots and a minus-four rating.

On the only goal of the third period, after the Canucks played their best period of the series in the second by outshooting the Oilers 17-4, Lindholm passed to the front of the net towards Pettersson, who directed it against the post with his skate, before Miller, with a step on McDavid, batted in a bouncing rebound.

Miller had blamed himself for Oiler Evan Bouchard’s late winner in Game 4, as the Canuck had cheated on a failed defensive-zone exit, then failed to block the pass or the shot on the decisive goal. The next morning, Miller took responsibility during a text exchange with Tocchet. There was no apology, as Tocchet characterized, but there was accountability and a vow to be better.

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“I have faith in myself,” Miller said. “I speak honestly with you guys whether it’s good or bad. I didn’t really like my game the other night. . . and I thought that kind of (translated) into the reason we got scored on at the end of the game. Yesterday and today, I got focussed. I just thought as a team, we played a solid hockey game today.

“I got a little lucky because that puck was kind of (bouncing) all over the place. It was just nice to get rewarded.”

“I just heard Millsy wanted it earlier,” Lindholm said of the winning play. “But (the puck) kind of rolled up on me and I decided not to that play; it looked like their guys. . . were kind of cheating. So I just tried to keep it simple and lay one in there and it worked out.”

Di Giuseppe, added to the fourth line along with Vasily Podkolzin to bring speed and forechecking, pounced on a Bouchard turnover in the slot, spun and slid a backhand through Edmonton goalie Calvin Pickard to tie it 2-2 at 5:14 of the second period.

“It’s been crazy, but it’s good emotions, I guess,” Di Giuseppe said. “Thank God, I scored.”

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Asked then about the ordeal of the last nine months, the 30-year-old’s voice caught and his eyes brimmed with tears as he said: “It’s been a battle for nine months for her. Obviously, with my job I’ve been away a lot, and she’s been in the hospital a lot. We’ve had a lot of family coming in and out to support us. Like I said before, it takes a village. It’s a blessing we got one. With how everything’s gone and, obviously, a high-risk pregnancy, you never know. But thank God.”

The village supporting Pettersson was the crowd at Rogers Arena.

“It means a lot,” Pettersson said. “It’s always encouraging to have the fans behind you; I always have that here. But just to hear them chant my name, it just makes me want to work even harder. I thought  we had a really good game, our line. Could have scored some goals, but just a step in the right direction.”

The village was more like a large, loud city. Or maybe even a movement. In three weeks of playoff hockey, the Canucks have cleansed its fan base of three years (or more) of disappointment and anger — all that frustration replaced by sheer joy and something even more precious: hope.

Unlike the last time the Canucks were really good, in and around their 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final, there is no complacency or entitlement among fans about what they are witnessing.

“It means a lot,” Myers said. “Just looking back at the five years (since) some of us came in together, to be in the position that we’re in now, you can tell nobody’s taking it for granted. And it’s a tonne of fun. It’s why you play the game this time of year, and to do it in a place like Vancouver with the fans the way they are, in a hockey market, it’s a special feeling. We want to keep it going.”

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