Bo Horvat scored twice, including the winner in overtime on a wrist shot, and the Vancouver Canucks outlasted the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Sunday night in their first game in nearly a month.
After a frustrating, on-again, off-again pause that began after their game on March 24, due to COVID-19 protocols, perhaps it was fitting that the Canucks relied on their captain, Horvat, to lead a rally past the No. 1 team in the North Division.
“He was phenomenal. What can you say, two goals and an assist. You want guys to step up to the plate,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “There’s a reason why he’s wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey.”
The Canucks — who didn’t even return to practice until Thursday — hardly had the type of lineup that Vancouver fans are used to. Green, who said his roster card was missing “eight or nine” regulars, watched his team shake off some early rust, and a 2-0 deficit, thanks to 37 saves from Braden Holtby.
“I was happy for Holts tonight. He’s such a good person. He’s had a bit of a rough year, but we’ve tried to stand by him and believe him … and we do,” Green said of the veteran netminder who is in his first season with the Canucks. “To beat a team like Toronto — with how long we’ve been out — you’re going to need a strong performance from your goalie.”
Holtby held the Maple Leafs scoreless from the third period on.
“It was a gutsy effort from our group; we all just went out there and gave it all we had,” Holtby said. “We stuck together and believed we had a chance to win.”
And their captain believes it could be the start of something positive down the stretch for a club that is not currently in a playoff position.
“This gives our group a lot of confidence,” Horvat said. “We needed something like this to drive us through the schedule coming up. Having confidence right away is important.”
Green appeared sullen and stone-faced as he answered questions in his pregame media availability while sipping a cup of coffee. The coach — as well as his club — has been challenged by the pandemic, perhaps more than any other team.
That said, Vancouver had enough of a roster to field those two practices leading up to the game, and eventually notched perhaps its best effort of the season, all things considered.
“We had a lot of good efforts and our goalie was fantastic. Even guys that didn’t play a lot, they gave it everything they had tonight. As a coach, it all starts right there,” Green said. “You would hope that it would give them some belief. But I believe our group had the belief already. Our group is a competitive group, they love winning, and they’re resilient.
“A win like this will go a long way.”
Canucks veteran defenseman Tyler Myers was one of the players in the lineup against Toronto. But his type of experience on the blue line was lacking overall against the high-octane Maple Leafs. That said, Vancouver’s defense stiffened at crunch time, and Myers assisted on the game-winning goal in overtime.
“We had a pretty good last few skates,” Myers said of the team’s preparation. “You could tell guys were really pushing through some of the fatigue to get back at it, enough that will put us in position to win games.”
The return of the Canucks was a hot topic for weeks across the league, and one of the team’s veteran forwards, J.T. Miller, who also played Sunday, was outspoken about the league potentially rushing their return to play. Miller finished with 30 shifts for 21:59 of ice time.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning defended the veteran’s message last week.
“We’re dealing with a different kind of COVID; the P.1 variant is different. We didn’t know what to expect,” Benning said Friday. “As our players started coming back and working out, then the constant communication — they were having some symptoms that were different than regular COVID, and it took them a little longer to get up and going. I think that was relayed in J.T.’s message.”
Myers, too, echoed the sentiment, but more for what the Canucks have experienced at home than on the ice.
“The hardest part was when all the families got it,” he said. “But looks like most of the kids handled it better than the adults did.”
The Canucks are off Monday but will face the Maple Leafs again on Tuesday in Vancouver.
“Our group really wanted to win tonight,” Green said. “You could feel it on the bench. It was a special night for them.”
William Nylander scored his 14th goal of the season for Toronto in the loss, and Auston Matthews added his 33rd of the season, which continues to lead the league. Jack Campbell made 21 saves for the Maple Leafs.