The Vancouver Canucks know they’re not going to the playoffs this year, but Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs gave the team a taste of what it’s like to play a meaningful game in March.
“That was a good one. Fun one start to finish,” said goalie Thatcher Demko, who stopped 36 shots in the victory.
Even if the Canucks are out of contention, the way they play still matters, said head coach Rick Tocchet.
“It’s not just play out 20 games and let’s wait for next year. These are important games,” he said. “Everyday we come in we’re trying to become a team that we want to be, and we can’t waste practices you can’t waste games.”
Special teams proved to be the difference maker Saturday.
Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller each scored and notched an assist for the Canucks (25-32-5) during a Leafs’ power play.
WATCH | Pettersson, Miller sink Maple Leafs with short-handed goals:
Vancouver’s Andrei Kuzmenko found the back of the net on a man advantage in the second period, and Nils Aman put away the game’s lone even strength goal in the third. Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes each contributed a pair of helpers for the home side.
The Leafs (38-17-8) got a power-play goal from John Tavares and Matt Murray made 20 saves for Toronto in his return from an ankle injury.
“You’re torn, right? Because you come out in the third period and your power play scores you a huge goal and gets you going in the game, and then obviously lets you down the next time out. So you’re torn on that one,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
With the score level at 1-1 midway through the third period, Toronto got an opportunity to take the lead when Vancouver’s Phillip Di Giuseppe was called for high-sticking. But it was the Canucks who found the back of the net with a pair of short-handed goals 44 seconds apart.
Miller and Pettersson sparked the offensive outburst with a two-on-one. Miller sent Pettersson the puck at the hash marks and the Swedish centre popped it under Murray to put the Canucks up 2-1 at the 6:39 mark.
The Canucks came into matchup having killed off a league-worst 67.6 per cent of their penalties this season while the Leafs’s power play had capitalized on 25.1 per cent of their man advantages and was tied for third best in the NHL.
Improvements have been made to Vancouver’s penalty kill recently, said defenceman Tyler Myers.
“It’s such a fine line.” he said. “I think to be honest, I think we’re a little more patient when we need to be and we’re pressuring when we need to. I think our reads have been a little bit better. And I think our sacrifice to block shots has been a lot better.
“So we’ve just got to keep sticking with that mindset, keep going over it with each other with the video and just keep building off of it.”
Tavares levelled the score at 1-1 on a power play early in the third after Canucks’ Myers was called for hooking.
William Nylander sliced a pass across the low slot — sending the puck through the legs of Vancouver defenceman Noah Juulsen — to the Leafs captain and Tavares popped it in behind Demko for his 28th goal of the season 1:32 into the period.
Toronto was one-for-four with the man advantage Saturday while Vancouver was one-for-three.
The Leafs’ play has been “a little up and down” lately, Tavares said.
“We’ve put some really good stretches together over the last few weeks,” he said. “But obviously we want to keep building momentum here, especially off of good efforts, good results, so something we need to be better at.”
Newly acquired Leafs centre Ryan O’Reilly was hit in the arm with a shot late in the second period and did not return for the third.
Keefe said the team is waiting to see how serious the injury is.
Toronto appeared to be in danger of losing Matthews late in the first period after the star centre took a Juulsen slap shot off the inside of his right knee.
He struggled to get up, then stayed on the ice on his hands and knees for several moments and was examined by a trainer before he limped to the locker room.
Matthews returned midway through the second period, but said after the game that he was still hurting.
“I tried to grind my way through it,” he said. “I mean, it didn’t feel too great but felt fine to play.”
The Canucks continue a six-game homestand Monday against the Nashville Predators, while the Maple Leafs visit the Devils in New Jersey on Tuesday.