Validated, educated and emboldened, the Canucks looked Wednesday against the Stanley Cup champion Blues almost nothing like the jittery, uncertain playoff rookies they were just over a week ago against Minnesota.
They handled the powerful Blues’ intensity, size and talent and simply pulled the game away from the champions in the third period as the Canucks won 5-2 to begin the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ first round.
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The Canucks have so many things going for them right now, including the angels on their shoulders. Troy Stecher scored the winning goal Wednesday then looked up to one of them. Stecher’s dad, Peter, died suddenly on Father’s Day in June.
“My darkest nightmare you could ever imagine,” Troy told Sportsnet last month.
The Canucks have brought a lot of light back into Stecher’s world, and it was clear listening to teammates speak after the game — or try to — that the likeable defenceman from Richmond, B.C., has given some light to them.
“It’s been tough, obviously, at certain moments throughout this process but I’m thankful to be surrounded by my teammates,” Stecher told reporters after scoring the biggest goal of his life. “I had a couple of seconds there to reflect on my dad. The biggest thing is everyone showed their support on the bench instantly and kind of gave me a tap and that just kind of motivated me to keep it going.”
Stecher ripped an unscreened slap shot from the right-wing circle that went between St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington’s arm and torso to break a 2-2 tie at 5:37 of the final period. During the next television timeout, as players spilled on to the ice for a quick stretch, Canucks star Elias Pettersson grabbed hold of Stecher and hung on to his teammate for several seconds while speaking to him.
“I saw his celebration right away and I wanted to congratulate and tell him… “ Pettersson explained, then paused. “Just what Troy had to go through in the summer was just devastating, so I just wanted to go and hug him.”
Canucks captain Bo Horvat said: “I couldn’t be happier for Troy to get that one. I think I can speak for everybody…”
And then Horvat couldn’t speak at all as emotions swamped him.
The Canucks are an awfully tight group. They have that going for them, too.
Goalie Jacob Markstrom lost his father, Anders, last November, while winger Zack MacEwen’s dad, Craig, died in May.
“I know what he’s going through,” Markstrom said of Stecher. “It’s not easy… I got emotional as well thinking about it. I gave him a big hug after the game.”
In the final period, the Canucks beat Binnington on three of four shots.
Horvat dismantled Blues defenceman Vince Dunn one-on-one before snapping a shot into the top corner to make it 4-2 at 8:01, and J.T. Miller scored from Brock Boeser’s pass with 39 seconds remaining as the Vancouver power play went 3-for-6.
Miller mysteriously was unable to participate in the warmup, but whatever was bothering him was not apparent on the ice as the power forward logged 22:02 of ice time while scoring one goal and setting up another.
And Markstrom, who had one of his poorest games this season when the Canucks eliminated Minnesota in the qualifying round on Friday, was outstanding while stopping 29 of 31 shots. Vancouver defended well in front of him, limiting St. Louis to just eight third-period shots when the Blues were desperate.
“Obviously, they won the Cup for a reason, so we were ready for it,” Horvat said after composing himself. “I thought we showed some good things tonight and some pushback, and obviously scoring those big goals late was a huge clutch for us.
“You need everybody to win, first of all. You need your secondary scoring but you also need your power play to produce in the playoffs. It’s such a key thing in playoffs. We’ve done a great job to spread the scoring around and guys stepping up at key times. Everybody is doing their role and playing the way they have to play to win.”
The Canucks are suddenly on a four-game winning streak after getting shut out by the Wild in the first game of their Stanley Cup tournament.
But the Canucks have graduated from eliminating a Minnesota team that had won four playoff rounds in 20 years to staring down a St. Louis squad that won four playoff rounds last spring.
Any ideas that the Stanley Cup champions, who drifted through their meaningless playoff round-robin, might not be fully engaged for the Canucks were quickly dispelled.
They looked for two periods like the heavy, deep, talented team that won the Blues’ first championship just 14 months ago.
It was fast, physical, hard hockey, but the Canucks power play forced the Blues to chase much of the game.
Miller teed up a shot that Horvat wristed short-side on Binnington during a power play to make it 1-0 at 4:29 of the first period.
St. Louis’ man-advantage unit tied it on a near-identical play at 16:37 as David Perron whipped a quick shot from the slot into the top corner.
The Canucks power play struck again at 8:37 of the middle period when Pettersson picked up a loose puck after Boeser made a strong move to crease, then fired into the top of the net while falling to make it 2-1.
But the Blues pushed back again just 72 seconds later, conjuring a tying goal out of nothing when Jaden Schwartz won a race to the puck against Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev and beat Markstrom on a breakaway with a gorgeous deke. The play started with Miller winning an offensive-zone faceoff, but Schwartz reacted more quickly to the puck and dusted Tanev in the foot race.
The play looked like it could bend the game in the Blues’ favour. Instead, it seemed to strengthen the Canucks’ resolve. And stir the hockey gods and those among them.