Garland, Hoglander drive effort as Canucks break out of short slump with OT win

Thatcher Demko made 32 saves and J.T. Miller had the game-winner as the Vancouver Canucks gritted out a 3-2 overtime win over the Washington Capitals.

WASHINGTON — If this is what a “slump” looks like for the Vancouver Canucks, truly, they have never had it so good.

It’s difficult to say what qualifies as a slump for a team that hasn’t lost more than two consecutive games all season — and done that only three times over 53 games. On Sunday, the Canucks maintained that mark of consistency by rallying twice before beating the Washington Capitals 3-2 in overtime on J.T. Miller’s gift goal and Thatcher Demko’s goaltending.

The Canucks’ third road game in less than 74 hours, a matinee contest in which coach Rick Tocchet conceded his players looked tired, came one day after Vancouver blew a two-goal, third period lead and lost 4-3 in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings.

The game before that, on Thursday night, the Canucks lost 4-0 to the Boston Bruins in one of their poorest performances in weeks. It led Tocchet to blast the team’s top-six forwards. 

Vancouver still leads the National Hockey League at 35-12-6. But is their .500 play over the last three games, when they haven’t looked ready at the start and struggled at times to manage the puck, anything other than a minor ripple on the water of what has been a spectacular, glass-smooth season? Are they fine?

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“I’m not going to say that we’re fine,” veteran defenceman Ian Cole said Sunday. “Because. . . I think there are things you can take out of every game, positive or negative. And I think it’s our job to take a step back, look at each game objectively and say, ‘How can we improve?’ That is our No. 1 goal as professional athletes. And to win hockey games. That’s it.

“Do I think we can be better? Yes. Do I think that there’s anything that can’t be corrected, like we’re not fast enough or can’t make plays or we don’t have enough skill? None of those things are issues. But is there stuff we can fix? Absolutely. There are certain things that we can do better, that we can improve on, but we know that. I think our ability to continue to strive to get better is what has made us good. . . over the course of this year. I don’t think we change that mindset at all because of the last three games.”

Now 2-1-1 on a difficult road trip following the NHL All-Star break, the Canucks end their five-game tour Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Things have gone so well this year that, you know, when you lose one it feels like the end of the world,” Canuck Tyler Myers said. “Guys are doing a good job of sticking with it. Some things to clean up coming off the break. We just have to keep pushing forward. It’s not looking too far ahead or at what happened the game before. Win or lose, we’ve just got to keep pushing and keep working on things to get better.

“Overall, it wasn’t our cleanest game as a group. I thought we started to get our legs (moving) better in the third. But you know what? We stuck with it in the sense. . . we were pretty good within our system, even though it wasn’t our cleanest game. And Demmer was obviously very good for us tonight, and we were able to come out with two. And that’s a big two points for us.”

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Miller had another quiet night until Washington’s Connor McMichael decided to drop a pass to no one in his own slot with seven seconds remaining in overtime, turning it over to the Miller, who zipped a wrist shot past Capital goalie Darcy Kuemper’s shoulder at 4:55.

Demko had stopped McMichael on a breakaway 43 seconds into three-on-three — almost the same time and behind the same defenceman (Quinn Hughes) at which Red Wing Jake Walman drew a penalty shot during an overtime breakaway ahead of Saturday’s winning goal.

But the story of the game for the Canucks were wingers Conor Garland and Nils Hoglander, who drove the tired team with goals from their supporting roles.

Criticized by Tocchet after Saturday’s loss for not blocking out on Detroit’s tying goal, Hoglander got another chance to skate with friend and top centre Elias Pettersson and brilliantly scored to make it 2-2 at 8:48 of the second period.

Hoglander worked a give-and-go with Pettersson on a three-on-two, then fooled Kuemper by taking the puck wide to his backhand before lifting a shot into the roof of the net just 71 seconds after a turnover by Dakota Joshua allowed Capital Alex Ovechkin to bank a pass in off Canuck Nils Aman’s skate.

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For the third straight game, the Canucks surrendered an easy, early goal at 1:08 (they fell behind 1-0 45 seconds into the Detroit game and 32 seconds into the Boston debacle), when Cole allowed Nic Dowd to skate behind him and convert Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s centring pass after it looked like Vancouver skaters quit on a possible icing.

But Garland, who led the Canucks with six shots on net and an expected-goals-for of 82 per cent, got his team going when he skated on to Noah Juulsen’s breakaway pass and beat Kuemper with a wrist shot over the goalie’s pad and under his blocker at 11:09 of the first period.

“Well, it’s just a mucky game,” Tocchet said. “You’re going to have these games in an 82-game schedule. I thought some guys were tired, which means you have to play smart. We turned the puck over a few times halfway through the game; I thought we were a little bit better as the game went on. But some games you’ve got to play when you don’t have your legs and you’ve got to play smart.”

Tocchet said he thought Garland and Hoglander were his best skaters, expressing surprise that the final event sheet showed the latter with just 11:54 of ice time.

“I thought I played him,” Tocchet said. “I thought Hoggy was a dog on the bone. You know, these games when some guys are tired. . . guys like Hoggy shine because he’s a motor. I thought Garland and him were our best players. Garland was excellent tonight, so give those two guys a lot of credit.”

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We have.

“I don’t really listen to media too much,” Hoglander said after his 16th goal in 51 games. “But, yeah, I listen to the coach when he talks. He came up to me before the game and was showing me the clips from the last game. I mean, we played pretty good in the offensive zone, but D-zone we can be a little bit better. It’s every game I have to prove that I can be a guy he can trust.”

Tocchet certainly trusts Garland, who has been driving the third line as one of Vancouver’s best players the last two months. His ice time Sunday of 18:10 was a season-high.

“It’s not just results driven,” Garland said. “It’s effort and playing to our system and executing and just playing the way we can. We’re a group that’s really aware of when we play well and when we don’t, and if we don’t, we follow it up with a good effort. And we’ve haven’t had many bad efforts back-to-back all year.”

• With Canuck defenceman Nikita Zadorov starting his two-game suspension for Saturday’s check-to-the-head on Red Wing Lucas Raymond, Mark Friedman returned to the Vancouver lineup for the first time since Nov. 30. He logged 11:07 of ice time and was even on shot attempts for and against.

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