Horvat leads Canucks past Blues


Captain Canuck: Bo Horvat celebrates his overtime winner to put the Canucks up 2-0 on the defending champion Blues. AP photo via Getty Images

With one great Quinn Hughes outlet and one splendid Bo Horvat breakaway goal past Jordan Binnington, the Canucks took a 2-0 series lead over the Blues last night at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

That was enough to withstand a charge from the resilient Blues. The defending champs are on the ropes. Despite a valiant effort in the third period to rally back from a two-goal deficit, they now most win four of the next five to take the best-of-seven first round series.

An Elias Pettersson power play goal on a great mid-air deflection put Vancouver up 3-1 at 5:36 of the third period. They started off well by getting the first two goals from Horvat (shorthanded on a rush) and key secondary scorer Tanner Pearson.

Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly cut it in half with 64 seconds left in the second when he cut around a Canucks penalty killer and fired a perfect wrist shot far side inside the goalpost to beat Jacob Markstrom. It directly followed a sequence that saw Sammy Blais get away with a hit from behind that drew the attention of Jay Beagle. He got the extra two for roughing. O’Reilly gave his team a spark.

In the third, the Pettersson goal loomed large. Especially without veteran defenseman Tyler Myers. He didn’t return to the game after leaving due to an unspecified injury. That left the Canucks with five defensemen. Coach Travis Green shortened his bench in crunch time following Blais scoring unassisted on a nifty backhand on Markstrom to pull St. Louis within one.

The Canucks opted to sit back and protect the precarious one goal lead. Despite Green opting not to use rookie Hughes defensively while leaning on vets Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Game One hero Troy Stecher and Oscar Fantenberg, it almost worked. Beagle and Brandon Sutter were used plenty too up front.

However, you got the sneaky sense that the battle tested Blues would find a way to tie it. Even with every Vancouver clear and key Markstrom save, they never panicked. Sure enough, they literally took it down to the last shot. With time winding down, Alex Pietrangelo wound up and fired a wrist shot that changed direction thanks to a brilliant tip from the gritty David Perron.

What looked like the tying goal with just over six seconds remaining turned into the four officials conferencing before indicating that they felt Perron touched the puck with a high stick. I never felt so. The replays indicated that it was not above crossbar height. They reviewed it and it didn’t take long to overturn the no goal call. This was a great decision by everyone involved. That’s how it should work.

It wasn’t until TSN’s Gord Miller noticed that the Perron redirection went off Jaden Schwartz that the goal was changed before sudden death. How about that. That’s how unique a tying goal it was. The relentless Blues doing all they could to force overtime. Would they complete the comeback?

My initial thought was yes. That it would be hard for the Canucks to overcome blowing that lead. They sat back a bit too much. As a Rangers Twitter friend noted, “Prevent defense prevents you from winning.” This certainly applies to hockey as much as football.

I did have one more observation entering the overtime. If the Blues win, it’ll be with will. If the Canucks win, it’ll be with skill. That’s the difference in styles. St. Louis loves to forecheck and drive the net in search of tips, rebounds and screen the goalie. Vancouver can hurt you in transition with their game breakers. Sure enough, that’s how it played out.

I didn’t believe the extra session would last long. I guess it was good foresight. It was the Canucks who surprisingly were ready for OT. On the opening shift, they established their cycle and set up a dangerous shot from Tanev that Marco Scandella got a piece of. Had he not, Tanev might’ve had another quick OT winner as he did to eliminate the Wild. He’s not a offensive guy, but seems to know where to go.

The Blues only got one shot on Markstrom, who has outplayed Binnington. They were applying a heavy forecheck that had Vancouver pinned in for a while. Was this it? Instead, Hughes persisted by making two subtle defensive plays behind his net to escape trouble. Then, the puck possession wizard made a brilliant bank outlet pass for Horvat, who got behind the Blues defense.

Horvat has been clutch for these Canucks. Having already beaten Binnington once with a beautiful move that undressed two Blues for a shorthanded goal, this time he cruised in and didn’t feel the back pressure. The Vancouver captain wisely decided to go with a quick wrist shot that beat Binnington to win the game 4-3 at 5:55 of overtime.

It was a goal scorer’s goal by a leader, who is the heart and soul of these Canucks. Maybe he isn’t quite Pettersson, Brock Boeser or a more mature JT Miller, whose game has taken a quantum leap in Vancouver. However, Horvat is the driving force that plays in every big game situation for Green. He can win key face-offs, play penalty kill or power play while being fully trusted at five-on-five. A complete player whose star is shining.

When they decided to trade Cory Schneider to the Devils for that 2013 first pick, it was a gamble. However, it was obvious that Schneider had to go. The Devils coveted him as the heir apparent to hockey legend Martin Brodeur. It looked like a good deal for the Devils. But close friend Brian Sanborn was proven right when he said he felt the Devils made a mistake. He thought the ninth overall pick was worth more than Schneider, who’s had a run of bad luck in Newark.

Sometimes, these trades take a while to figure out. With Schneider nearing the conclusion of his time in New Jersey, who could decide to grab hot Russian goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov if he’s available this October, Horvat continues to blossom into one of the better captains in the league at the center position. A complete player even if he doesn’t blow you away.

The Canucks get high marks for sticking with the plan after Roberto Luongo was traded back to Florida where he’s now retired and The Sedins retired. They rebuilt their team by remaining patient with Markstrom, who they received from the Panthers. Once a second round draft pick at number 31 by Florida in 2008, the 30-year old Swede now looks like a good number one goalie. A injury limited him during what looked like a breakout year. He sure looks locked in after stopping 34 of 37 shots.

They have Thatcher Demko too as the backup with prospect Michael DiPietro in the system. With Hughes patrolling the blueline for the rest of the decade and a nucleus of Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat and Miller, there’s a lot to like about this group of Canucks. Eventually, Tyler Madden and Vasili Podkolzin will be a part of it.

It isn’t a surprise that Vancouver is causing St. Louis problems. They have a good balance of skill, skating and grit that can compete in this unique bubble postseason. If they do pull off the upset, they’re a live dog. Especially if Markstrom continues to do the job in net.

I nearly took them in seven this round, but felt the Blues’ experience would prevail. It still could. But they need better from Binnington along with Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, who doesn’t look fully healed from shoulder surgery. There’s enough grit with Perron, who combines skill with determination. Plus guys like Blais, Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Sanford and Ivan Barbashev. Don’t count them out.

Right now, the Canucks are creating a good storyline. They’re an up and coming team for sure. On the flip side, you have the Hurricanes all even with the Bruins in an intriguing series of skill, heavy forecheck and grit. Game Three hits at noon today in Toronto. There’s the Blue Jackets all even thanks to Joonas Korpisalo taking on the Lightning, who have all the pressure on them tonight.

You have the pesky Canadiens blowing out the heavily favored Flyers 5-0 by drawing inspiration after losing coach Claude Julien for the series due to chest pains. Hopefully, he will make a full recovery. They sure were ready with Tomas Tatar tallying twice and suddenly reemerging kid Jesperi Kotkaniemi scoring while Carey Price did his thing to record a seventh career postseason shutout. Alain Vigneault was none too pleased about Montreal assistant Kirk Muller leaving his first unit on late during a power play. It all makes for a juicy Game Three.

The Islanders controlling the regressing Capitals, who without Nicklas Backstrom, and apparently coach-less with Todd Reirden over matched by former coach Stanley Cup hero Barry Trotz, look like a shell of themselves. Alex Ovechkin cannot do it by himself.

Plus the Flames and Stars in a battle with Cam Talbot stopping all 35 his way for his third career playoff shutout in a 2-0 win in Game Three. Calgary leads the series 2-1.

These playoffs are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Where only West favorites Vegas and the Avalanche look like good bets to go far. Each leading their series 2-0. Anything can happen.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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