There was a strange sound coming from the Vancouver Canucks’ dressing room Thursday night. It was called music.
And that weird feeling players had, that lightness in their chests that felt vaguely familiar? That was happiness.
The saddest team in the National Hockey League, losers of six straight games and trudging through a schedule that could crush whatever players had left after surviving COVID-19 in April, was finally able to smile after beating the Edmonton Oilers 6-3 at Rogers Place.
Man, did the Canucks need this.
The team poured in four goals on its first four shots, chasing wonky Edmonton starter Mikko Koskinen at 12:22 of the first period before the goalie had the pleasure of making, you know, a save.
The second Vancouver goal was scored by rookie defenceman Jack Rathbone, who was playing just his second NHL game and smiled as wide as Prairies after finding the back of the net. Veteran Travis Hamonic scored his first goal of the season and, with an assist and fight later on, completed the second Gordie Howe hat trick of his career 10 years after the first one.
Matthew Highmore’s assist on Jayce Hawryluk’s grounder finally gave him his first point as a Canuck, 10 games after Vancouver acquired the winger at the trade deadline. Minor-league callup Tyler Graovac banked a shot in off Koskinen’s reliever, Mike Smith, for his first NHL goal in 18 months. And Canucks starter Thatcher Demko, hit harder than most by the team’s novel coronavirus outbreak, stopped Connor McDavid on a penalty shot for one of his 39 saves as he won for the first time since March 19.
So, this is what fun feels like?
“Just hear the music after the game, and just smile and just kind of enjoy it,” Hamonic, 30, told reporters after the Canucks’ first win in nearly two weeks. “We probably needed a win like this. As the season grinds along, it’s never going to go necessarily the way you think or you want. But you’ve got to kind of slow things down and enjoy the wins when they come your way, and then reset tomorrow.”
The victory comes far too late to help the Canucks in the North Division standings, but it should help their spirits immensely as they try to survive another eight games in 12 days, starting Saturday in Edmonton, where McDavid is four points shy of 100 in his extraordinary pandemic-shortened season.
“It’s nice,” Demko said. “It’s been a tough little stretch here, dealing with a handful of things. But our group hasn’t made any excuses. We understand the situation we’re in, and we want to keep winning as many games as we can. To come out and have the start that we did tonight was huge. Tonnes of guys contributing, Bonesie gets his first one, kind of gets the boys going.”
Rathbone’s nickname arrived before he did.
He befriended Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes years ago. Both were born in 1999, and got to know each other through hockey. They played on a summer team together one year in Boston, long before each went off to college. Hughes invited Rathbone to live with him after the newer Canuck completed his quarantine following a callup last month from the American League.
And Thursday, Rathbone displayed the offensive instincts that have helped Hughes become one of the best young defencemen in the game.
The 21-year-old from Harvard and West Roxbury, Mass., followed up a Canucks rush, collected a loose puck in the slot and snapped a shot past Koskinen to make it 2-0 at 4:31.
“It was kind of a gift with the puck laying there in a slot,” Rathbone said. “That’s the dream, just to be able to walk down Main Street, and I was lucky enough it went in.”
Rathbone went a year without playing before he recorded three assists in February in his pro hockey debut with the Utica Comets. Seven games and another six points later, Rathbone was promoted to the NHL.
“It’s definitely a huge jump,” he said. “The guys in the room have helped me a lot, especially the guys on the back end and the coaching staff, just in terms of making the jump as seamless as possible. There’s definitely going to be a little bit of a learning curve (but) it’s been good so far. Just try and come to the rink every day, and learn and grow.”
It will be a little more fun the next time the Canucks go to the rink.
After signing a one-year deal with the Canucks on the eve of the regular season, then breaking ribs in his fifth game and missing a month, Hamonic said he has enjoyed playing in Vancouver despite the many challenges of this unprecedented season.
“Obviously, we haven’t had the success that we wanted this season,” Hamonic said. “But … I feel very comfortable on a personal note. Things change and you try to help these young kids along the way. I think that the skill level of these guys coming in, it’s pretty extraordinary. As much as you’re trying to help them … I think those guys kind of help an older player like me with some of their skill work as well. So, it’s been fun. It’s a really, really good group in here. We enjoy playing for each other and it’s been frustrating to not have the results that we kind of felt we should have as a group. But we enjoy playing for each other, and I think that’s a super important thing.”
Hamonic’s mom, Lisa, spent her birthday evening watching Travis score his first goal, draw a second assist on Nils Hoglander’s opening-minute goal, and fight Alex Chiasson in the second period.
“I know she doesn’t like when I fight too much, but she’ll be happy about the goal, for sure,” Hamonic said. “I clipped Alex with the hit and he wanted to go, and I certainly wasn’t not going to stand up for myself. When you’re retired and you’re older and kids are looking through your stuff and see a stick or a puck or something from a Gordie, that’s always kind of fun.”
It’s a nice feeling.