VANCOUVER — This has never been tried.
Nobody has done what the Vancouver Canucks are trying to do because no major professional sports team in North America has been attacked the way the Canucks were the last three weeks by COVID-19’s vicious P.1 variant.
There is no precedent. Finishing the National Hockey League season with nearly an entire roster of coronavirus survivors is a monumental challenge that seems almost impossible to conclude with any competitive success. It seems the Canucks are playing for degrees of failure, because how could any team thrive over 19 games in 32 days after a 24-day layoff in which many players were sicker than they’ve ever been?
This isn’t a schedule — it’s an experiment.
Nothing should surprise us. But Sunday, at the start of the experiment, the Canucks stunned everyone, including the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Out-skated, out-chanced, and looking close to exhaustion whenever the fast and formidable Leafs extended shifts in the Vancouver zone, the Canucks rallied from two goals down to beat the best team in Canada 3-2 in overtime when captain Bo Horvat rattled a shot through Toronto goalie Jack Campbell.
From where they were just a few days ago to where the Canucks were Sunday evening was astonishing.
“This isn’t just your regular win during the regular season,” Vancouver coach Travis Green, who was so ill himself he admitted Saturday he hadn’t been sure he could return when his players did, told reporters on Zoom. “It’s a special win. We’ve gone through a lot here with our group over the last few weeks. I’m proud of our group.
“I don’t want to start getting ahead of tonight’s win (but) you would hope that it would give them some belief. Our group is a competitive group. They love winning, and they’re resilient, and you hope that this win can obviously give them some belief in what they can do. Coming off COVID and being off the ice for so long, there’s going to be some doubt for sure within your mind. And a win like this will go a long way to help.”
Horvat said: “I couldn’t be prouder of our guys in that room, the way they manned up tonight and stuck to the process and willed their way to that win. To score that goal to get the win for the guys — but not only the guys but our organization, our families — it definitely felt great.”
The way the Canucks competed, they were headed towards a moral victory even when Auston Matthews’ power-play goal made it 2-0 for Toronto at 14:57 of the second period, just under five minutes after Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for a knee-on-knee hit that injured Zach Hyman.
But on his next shift, Matthews turned over the puck in the offensive zone and Vancouver rookie Nils Hoglander spotted Horvat behind the Leafs’ defence. Horvat beat Campbell cleanly with a near-post wrist shot at 16:23 that got the Canucks within a goal in a game in which they were outshot 27-13 through two periods.
Hoglander tied it 2-2 at 12:03 of the third when Jalen Chatfield’s pass fell to him for a gimme after another Toronto turnover up ice. Horvat scored at 1:19 of overtime from close to the same spot he beat Campbell in the second period.
The Canucks barely made it to OT, surviving Matthews’ shot off the crossbar and post in the final minute of regulation, and the ensuing video review of a Mitch Marner bank-shot that the Maple Leaf believed was in.
Mostly, they survived because goalie Braden Holtby had his biggest game of a season that had been dismal for the former Vezina Trophy winner even before he got COVID and, like so many players, passed the virus on to his wife.
With No. 1 goalie (and team MVP) Thatcher Demko still too ill to play, Holtby started and won for the first time since Feb. 17 by stopping 37 of 39 shots. He made a pile of point-blank saves, but his most spectacular was a whirling, scissor-kick stop in the third period against Wayne Simmonds. Holtby looked like a synchronized swimmer as he extended his legs above his torso.
“Those ones are fun to make sometimes,” Holtby said. “I think it was just a gutsy effort from our group. I think it was just one where we all just decided to go out there and give it absolutely all you have. Stick together and we believed we were going to have a chance to win. It was a fun one to be part of.”
“I was happy for Holts tonight,” Green said. “He’s such a good person. He has had a bit of a rough year this year, probably not the year he wanted. But we’ve tried to stand by him and believe in him and we do. He was one of the first guys I talked to after the game tonight. I was proud of him tonight the way he played.
“To beat a team like Toronto, with how long we’ve been out, you’re going to need a performance from your goalie, and he gave us an All-Star Holtby performance tonight.”
Emotional energy carried the Canucks through whatever physical energy they lacked. In a season when so much had gone wrong even before the pandemic flattened and frightened them, the Canucks on Sunday brought sunlight back into their world and made players feel good.
When was the last time these players felt good?
“Under the circumstances, with kind of what we went through, I think it gives our group a lot of confidence,” Horvat said. “I think we needed something like this to kind of drive us here for this next schedule coming up.”