‘I don’t fear it’: Canucks’ Conor Garland ready for gritty, challenging series

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy discuss the Vancouver Canucks' lack of playoff experience and how the Canucks might respond to the Nashville Predators targeting their skilled players ahead of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

VANCOUVER — Three years before Nathan MacKinnon became the current favourite to win the Hart Trophy as the best player in hockey, Conor Garland managed to make the Colorado Avalanche superstar the best bowler in the National Hockey League.

During the fan-less pandemic regular season in 2020-21, MacKinnon became so angry after a reverse hit by Garland when the Arizona Coyotes visited Denver that he ripped off his opponent’s helmet and threw it underhand towards Garland’s face before the players came together and wrestled on the ice.

The bowling-for-dollars cost MacKinnon $5,000 when the NHL fined him for violently returning Garland’s helmet. 

“He just threw me down and then we went at it and kind of wrestled for a little bit,” Garland recalled Saturday. “He had four points. I said to him in the pile: ‘Why are you mad? You’re winning 9-3 and you’ve got four points.’

“The next game we played them there was a scrum and I could see him come flying in and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, we’re going to do this again?’ And he just stopped and apologized. So I appreciated that.”

The point of this story is that Garland, who is five-foot-nine, not a dirty player and rarely initiates contact, has a knack for infuriating opponents with the relentless manner in which he plays. Traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2021 after that pandemic-shortened season as part of Oliver Ekman-Larsson fiasco, the whirling winger is as unafraid as he is unyielding when badgering opponents for the puck.

This is important to remember because on Sunday, the 28-year-old from Boston will play his first genuine Stanley Cup playoff game when the Canucks face the physical Nashville Predators in Vancouver’s first home playoff contest since 2015.

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Like most of the Canucks’ youngish core players, Garland’s only previous playoff experience was in the antiseptic and artificial 2020 bubble in Edmonton amid the arrival of COVID-19. (Fun fact: Garland’s Coyotes eliminated the Predators in the qualifying round that summer).

As with Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Filip Hronek, Garland will be a popular target for Nashville.

“I don’t fear it,” Garland said after Saturday’s practice. “I don’t fear contact. I think there’s a perception of smaller guys fearing contact. But if you look at our guys, we certainly don’t. Huggy (Hughes) certainly doesn’t. Hoggy (Nils Hoglander) certainly doesn’t. Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year (with Vegas). You’ve just got to embrace it. You’re going to get hit, you’re going to throw hits. It’s fun. It’s better than playing shinny hockey. I’m looking forward to it.”

Seemingly predisposed to conflict on the ice, Garland is probably looking forward to this more than most after waiting eight years as a pro and 404 regular-season games in the NHL to finally compete in a real playoff game.

“Chip on his shoulder,” Canuck coach Rick Tocchet said of Garland, whom he also coached in Arizona. “All his life, you’re a small, little kid, you-can’t-play-with-the-big-boys type of thing. We laugh about it, but he’s had to change his game from junior. We’ve had talks about this. He was a heavy point guy (in the Quebec League) and he knew he’s not going to come up here and score 100 points like in junior. Maybe one day he can. But he’s got a little bit of a chip. He likes going in the corners, and he likes the confrontation. That’s his game. That’s why he drives lines.”

Asked about the broader combination of the Canucks’ top-of-the-lineup playoff inexperience and the Stanley Cup tournament’s heightened intensity, Tocchet said: “You’ve got to embrace the pain. There’s going to be pain, and you’ve got to love it. I’m being serious. 

“You’ve got to crave that walk to the bus when you’re tired and you’re limping or you’ve got a cut. That should be something you crave. Don’t be afraid of it. Obviously, (physicality) is ramped up. It’s a different level. You’ve just got to make sure that, you know, you can’t shy away. You’ve got to play uncomfortable.”

Garland and linemate Dakota Joshua have been making it uncomfortable for opposing defencemen most of the season, driving play and creating scoring chances. Now partnered with centre Elias Lindholm, the third-line trio could be a huge X-factor in this series.

Garland’s tally in Vancouver’s regular-season finale Thursday in Winnipeg made him a 20-goal scorer for the first time in four years. His 47 points were fourth-most among forwards, and he led the team with expected-goals-for of 59.6 per cent. The Canucks outscored opponents nearly two to one, 55-30, with Garland on the ice at five-on-five.

This excellence came after a tumultuous start for Garland, with reports the day before the season-opener that he had demanded a trade. Canuck management, in fact, was exploring options to provide salary-cap relief and, with the player’s permission, brought Garland’s agent into conversations.

Garland eventually made it unequivocally clear that he had no desire to play elsewhere. But despite pushing possession for most of the fall, he had just two goals and five assists in the first 25 games before his play-driving with Joshua started generating goals in December.

“I think I’d say I’m proud of myself,” Garland told Sportsnet. “You know, there was some sh– there at the start. I had some help here from the staff, mentally and on the ice. I’m grateful for that, and we got through it. There was some other stuff that went on off-ice and we got through that, too. It was a grueling start for me. But we made the playoffs and I felt like our line was a big key to that. Now we’ve got to be a big part of winning games at this time of the season.

“I told Toc — we had a meeting in early March — and I said I felt like I made a jump in my game here. And, you know, I hadn’t felt that since the trade. The last time I felt that (jump) was in the summer before my last year in Arizona. I felt like I improved a lot and I felt that again this year.

“I felt really good about my game. This is a different level, so you have to raise your game again to match it. But I feel confident that I can do that. There’s a first for everything, so we’ll find out (about the playoffs). But I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

He does have a way of annoying people.

“Yeah, ask my family,” he said. “Come to play a card game at my house. You’ll see.”

In the final practice before Game 1, Tocchet elevated speedy, grinding winger Sam Lafferty to play on the second line beside Pettersson and Hoglander, while Ilya Mikheyev was dropped to the fourth line. With Vasily Podkolzin an extra, the forwards lines were: Pius Suter-J.T. Miller-Brock Boeser; Hoglander-Pettersson-Lafferty; Joshua-Lindholm-Garland; and Phil DiGiuseppe-Teddy Blueger-Mikheyev. The defence pairings were: Hughes-Hronek; Carson Soucy-Tyler Myers; Nikita Zadorov-Ian Cole.

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