VANCOUVER — What is it with J.T. Miller? There he was again Wednesday, waving his hand at a teammate, demanding Quinn Hughes get out of the way.
Imagine how this made Hughes feel. He’s a human being, too.
After Miller’s infamous tomahawk chop on top of his own net, to get Vancouver Canucks goalie Collin Delia to scurry to the bench for an extra attacker during a Dec. 29 loss in Winnipeg, you’d think Miller would know better. I mean, he was like a twice-baked potato after that one, roasted on social media and mainstream media alike.
But here he was again in overtime Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, one hand on the stick, one hand waving like a traffic cop or dismissive teenager, Miller demanding that Hughes move away from the boards at the blue line.
Clearing space for Miller. Just so Miller could skate into the space vacated by Hughes, and enter the offensive zone at top speed while the Ducks waddled around confused by the movement of Vancouver’s players.
Why don’t you just score while you’re at it, J.T.? Miller, a new player under new coach Rick Tocchet, took advantage of that space by lasering a shot into the top short-side corner on goalie Lukas Dostal and win it 3-2 for the Canucks 20 seconds into OT.
“Yeah, I can imagine what they would be saying on Twitter,” Miller smiled. “The play is to just drop it with a lot of speed and hopefully catch them with no gap. I was actually going to drop it again to Huggy (Hughes), but when he moved, I thought his guy was going to stay there. But he got out of the way and I think the other two guys were a bit flat-footed, too.
“I knew I had to take a crack at it. You don’t get too many Grade-As (scoring chances in overtime) unless it’s their miss and you go the other way. I was really planning on dropping it to Huggy but their guy kind of gave me the lane, so after that point, I’m just thinking attack.”
Turned out to be good thinking. And good directing.
Miller has been pretty good at everything since Tocchet took over the Canucks on Jan. 22 and started asking for things like backchecks and defensive awareness and more strength in front of the nets – fairly simple demands that some thought might be beyond the team’s emotional leader.
In 17 games since Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau, Miller has played centre on the second line and re-asserted himself as a two-way power forward, producing five goals and 12 assists and positive metrics across the analytics board.
He also scored shorthanded for the Canucks’ first goal on Wednesday.
PK BETTER THAN OK
On pace for most of the season to post the worst penalty killing since the National Hockey League began tracking it in the 1970s, Canuck penalty killers have outscored opposing power plays 6-5 over the last nine games.
Miller and Pettersson each have three of the six, and Pettersson beautifully set up his teammate on Wednesday’s shorty by positioning himself between Dostal and defenceman Cam Fowler, the goalie’s only available outlet behind the Anaheim net, then deftly knocking down the airborne pass and centring the puck.
Miller charged onto it and snapped it into the top corner, this time on Dostal’s glove side, at 14:44 of the first period. Canuck penalty-killing backed up the goal by blanking the Ducks’ power play on two chances, which overlapped and included a 38-second five-on-three.
“It’s been pretty negative,” Pettersson said. “It hasn’t been our best aspect during the season. But overall, we killed off a five-on-three today and the PK has been a lot better recently.”
Asked about the outbreak of shorthanded offence – eight of the Canucks’ 10 shorthanded goals this season have been scored under Tocchet – Pettersson said: “I think it’s a read, like, see when there is a chance to play offensively on the PK. In that situation, I felt the goalie only had one play.
“Just guessing, reading. They only had one guy back. . . and he was behind me, so he had to pass it through me and I was lucky enough to intercept.”
There was nothing lucky about it.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
Andrei Kuzmenko’s 30th goal of his rookie season was all luck. His attempted backhand pass as he cut to the Anaheim goal in the second period bounced in off the skate of Duck Mason McTavish.
But it’s not luck that has given the Russian winger 30 goals and 57 points in 63 games and has him comfortably on pace to break Pavel Bure’s franchise record of 34 goals as a rookie.
“I thought a lot of things before the season,” Kuzmenko, who chose to leave the Kontinental League to join the Canucks at age 26. “A lot of things. (But) I don’t think about 30 goals. Really. It’s a good league with good players. I play with good players. For me, it’s easy to play with these partners. I need results. I need to every day help my team.”
Only a month ago, Kuzmenko logged just 10:35 during a game in Detroit, which followed two straight games of 12 minutes. Tocchet wanted more from him than offensive flair.
“This moment for me was a difficult moment,” Kuzmenko said Wednesday. “I remember this moment. Over my career, I have these (challenging) moments every time. I don’t have a surprise. I understand. I don’t play good a couple of moments in the defensive zone. I know. This club… is a big help for me in how I play in the defensive zone.
“Tocchet is a good coach for me. He says to me, every day you need to work, work, work. I listen to these words. I need to help this team and I can put play good in the defensive zone. Hockey play is not just offensive zone. Next season. . . we need to go to playoffs. I need to play better.”
“It’s a pretty impressive feat with 20 games to go,” Miller said of Kuzmenko hitting 30 goals. “He’s a big part of our offence, and I think he’s just going to get better. That’s the amazing part. There’s no saying how many he can score in a year.”