KANATA, Ont. — It wasn’t a stretch to suggest there would be no middle ground for the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday.
How could there be? It was either going to be all in or completely out of it because of distracting events off the ice and in the public eye.
It turned out to be a bit of both — first listless and then determined — in a wild 6-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators in which they found a way after being outshot 30-10 at one point.
With hockey operations shots flying across the bow — president Jim Rutherford once again publicly questioning structure, a poor camp and poor start Monday afternoon, and Bruce Boudreau responding in defence of his coaching and his players Tuesday morning — it was appointment viewing of an odd variety at the Canadian Tire Centre.
After all, the focus was supposed to be the Canucks commencing a crucial five-game road trip by dispensing of the struggling Senators, who had lost five-straight games and were ripe for the picking.
However, when your boss questions your commitment to play a complete game, it’s either going to have the desired effect to prove the hockey czar wrong, or it could go the other way with players wondering when the next skate is going to drop to bring about organization change.
“We did a great job of blocking it out tonight and maybe fuelling us a little bit and maybe there was a little method to the madness,” said captain Bo Horvat who struck for two goals to bring his team-leading total to 12.
Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau was buoyed by a third-period push which has often been lacking this season and the collective resolve to not let hockey ops talk get to them.
“They were just determined,” he said of his players. “I know the character of the guys and they want to win. Like any human being, they don’t like anything negative being said about them.”
Not that it was going to be easy to find a way to win.
“Our plan was to try and get it (puck) behind their defence and try to outwork them in the third,” added Boudreau. “We weren’t skating at all (first half) and when we got it deep, only one guy was getting in.
“It was easy for them to break out. In the third, we had two guys going in and getting the puck back and getting some O-zone time and that makes a big difference. You’re not always chasing the game and playing from behind.”
Here’s what we learned as the Canucks improved to 4-6-3:
Good goals, great goals
Amid all that, the Canucks somehow found a way to eventually find their game, make the most of 37 saves by Spencer Martin and other goals by Ilya Mikheyev, Brock Boeser, Jack Studnicka and an empty-netter by Elias Pettersson to eke out an improbable win.
Horvat knew to get to the net to pounce on an Ethan Bear wrist shot rebound in the final minute of the first period to give the Canucks some life after coughing up a goal in the opening minute.
And once again against the complete flow of play in the second period, Mikheyev took a pass at speed, cut across the crease and went backhand to forehand to make it 2-2. Horvat then struck again with the third-period winner after taking a pass from Conor Garland, who stripped the puck and fed the captain at the top of the crease for his team-leading 12th goal.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to start, and it wasn’t the prettiest win, but we’ve played a lot of good games this year where we haven’t won,” reasoned Horvat, who has become a positioning beast down low with his ability to establish position and score.
“I’m just happy to get the win. The start, I can’t put a finger on it. Long travel day and a time change, but after we got our legs under us we were a lot better. We’re just trying to be mentally tough. It has been a mental grind for a lot of this year and a lot of mental lapses by us.
“We didn’t have any doubt that we were not going to lose this game and we did a great job in the third period. And we didn’t make it easy on Spencer but he shut the door for us.”
As for his goal outburst — eight in the last five games — Horvat owes to the strong way he finished last season before being injured.
“There were times were I felt confident in myself and to start off again this year, I definitely feel fortunate. I’m trying to get to the soft and dirty areas in front and finish the best I can.”
It will only heighten his value in a contract extension impasse where he’s gaining more leverage with every goal and putting management in a position to respond.
“I want to play hard and prove myself that I can be a leader and score and be that 200-foot player — all the little things,” he stressed. “I was always told (in the past) I was too slow or not a top-six forward and I’m just trying to prove people wrong.”
Boeser also struck by tipping home a point shot at top of the crease in his first game back after recovering from a wrist cut problem that didn’t properly heal following surgery.
But Tim Stutzle then struck on the power play to make it a nail-biting finish before Jack Studnicka scored and Claude Giroux scored on the power play. Elias Pettersson then got the empty-netter.
Martin to emotional rescue
The rationale to play Martin on Tuesday and save Thatcher Demko for Wednesday in Montreal was a prudent move.
Boudreau went to the numbers that showed Demko made 33 saves at Bell Centre in 2-1 win on Nov. 29, 2021. Pettersson and Garland got the goals as the Canucks fired 42 shots at Jake Allen.
It was also the Canucks’ first regulation win in 19 games against the Canadiens dating to Oct. 27, 2015, and their first regulation win in 16 games in Montreal dating to Jan. 16, 2007.
On Tuesday, Martin put up his own stellar numbers and made a series of saves to keep his club in a game it had no business being in contention of winning, especially in the first 40 minutes with a series of stellar stops.
“But mistakes as well,” cautioned Martin. “Their second goal (long Travis Hamonic slapper far side) was terrible, but they were there when I made mistakes and vice-versa.
“I’ve been in theses situations a ton of times before. I didn’t get here (NHL) laying down. I just kind of kept it going with the confidence. It was just managing the highs and lows and not looking past one moment.
“But I can do a better job. I didn’t like putting us in that position after the first period (down 2-1) and just gave it everything I had in the second and found a way to close it out in the third.”
It started with stopping Drake Batherson off a partial break on a delayed penalty and then holding his ground when Batherson was allowed to complete a give-and-go for an in tight tip chance. It was then a no stick, sprawling snow angel sequence to keep the Canucks in it and a pair of saves off Brady Tkachuk — one blocker short side and one that dislodged his mask.
That start not so smart
It took the Senators 50 seconds to open scoring.
That said a lot about a period where the Canucks showed poor positioning and puck management, nothing on their only power play that surrendered two shorthanded chances and enough bad passing to last an entire game.
When Alex DeBrincat beat Tyler Myers to the puck in the corner and found an open Batherson in the slot, his shot beat a sprawling Martin to the far side.
Bear and Jack Rathbone had coverage adventures to all DeBrincat to get an untouched chance at top of the slot.
About that power play
It’s supposed to be the dagger and not the anchor.
If the Canucks had a leg up on the Senators, it was their third-ranked power play.
However, it didn’t look like one Tuesday. There was a first-period opportunity where over-passing and trying to thread a needle led to zero shots and two shorthanded chances for the Senators.
A second-period advantage yielded two shots but none of the dangerous variety, but a third period chance did result in Elias Pettersson being foiled.