BUFFALO – Asked if Tuesday’s win here was a game he absolutely had to have, Vancouver Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau smiled a little and said: “I did, yeah. For a couple of reasons.”
We meant that the team had to have.
“I know what you meant,” he said. “And I mean the team, too.”
He also meant himself. Beating the odds and circling sharks, Boudreau made it to career win No. 604 as a National Hockey League coach with his team’s 5-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres in which the Canucks did not quite blow another multiple-goal lead.
It’s impossible to know if he would have been fired had the Canucks lost their fourth straight road game, but it’s quite sensible to think that this dreadful start by Vancouver can’t continue without intervention. Who knows what Wednesday brings?
The Canucks must either start winning, or general manager Patrik Allvin has to start making substantive changes to a team that at 5-9-3 is nearing the schedule’s one-quarter mark amid one of the most disappointing starts in franchise history.
By hanging on against the Sabres, who fly around the ice and attack with five skaters (which doesn’t leave them a lot with which to defend), the Canucks bookended a five-game road trip with wins and allowed themselves to actually feel good for the first time in a week.
Already with six losses this season in which they kicked away two- or three-goal leads, the Canucks went up 5-2 before the game was half over, were hyper-ventilating when Casey Mittelstadt’s goal from power-play pressure brought the Sabres within one with 7:58 remaining, but managed to survive the last eight minutes and several icings.
Vancouver goalie Spencer Martin stopped 14 of 15 shots in the third period.
“It’s a test,” Canuck forward J.T. Miller said of the mental challenge of protecting a lead when so many have been squandered. “It’s an absolute test. You can’t be afraid. It’s going to take experience and time. . . but you really need to train yourself to demand more and really just keep playing the right way. At the end of the day, we were able to get the job done, so we’re happy with that.”
“A couple of us were saying going into third, like, ‘Let’s play to win, not play to lose,’” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “There’s a difference. At times, we could definitely have some more composure with the puck, probably avoid some the icings. It was not perfect in our D-zone. But guys’ effort was there tonight. And that’s a start. It’s not a perfect road trip by any means — 2-3 heading home. Ideally, you’d probably like to flip that around. But, you know, we do have a win going home and hopefully, we can learn from some of the tough things on our trip.”
Boudreau moved Miller back to the wing and played him on a line with Bo Horvat, who had a monster night: one goal, three points, eight shots, 22:42 of ice time and was 17-9 in the faceoff dot. Miller had a goal and logged a staggering 25:05 of ice time with Horvat and Conor Garland.
Miller joked he’d be going for a post-game workout.
“Can somebody spot me?” he said.
“I think that we needed the icings because. . . we were only using a few forwards out there and they needed a break, so it wasn’t a bad thing,” Boudreau reasoned. “And anytime Bo’s on the ice, you feel you’ve got a good chance of winning the faceoff. I thought we defended fine the last seven minutes. It’s never easy with us, but I thought it was a good character win.
“Miller played 25 minutes. For a forward, that’s probably the most I’ve ever played a forward in a non-overtime game. And Bo was 22 (minutes) only because he took two penalties. And I thought Garland worked really well today. If I’m going to give kudos, I’ve got to give kudos to that (Nils) Aman line. I thought they played really good as well.”
Aman, the rookie centre who has been a positive story swamped by the negativity around him, was excellent on an energy line with Dakota Joshua and minor-league callup Will Lockwood. The trio combined crisply for Vancouver’s opening goal at 8:01 of the first period, Lockwood knocking Buffalo defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin off the puck behind the Sabres’ goal to start the play.
Ethan Bear, with his first goal since his trade from the Carolina Hurricanes three weeks ago, and Elias Pettersson on a deflection had the other goals for Vancouver, who went 2-for-3 on the power play. And although Brock Boeser’s offensive-zone penalty ended five seconds before Mittelstadt’s goal, technically the Canuck did not allow a power-play goal for the first time in 15 games.
“I mean, I don’t know why we continue to make it so hard on ourselves, to be honest with you,” Horvat said of the narrow escape. “But for the majority of game, I thought we played really well.”
Schenn said: “A lot of guys had the right intentions of doing the right things. Like I said, it wasn’t perfect. But you did see guys with desperation dives blocking shots, guys trying to win their puck battles on the wall. There’s no question that we’re giving up a lot of goals right now. But in saying that, we’ll take the win. If you look at our home opener, Buffalo gave it to us (5-1 in Vancouver on Oct. 22) and that was a tough night for us. Every game is hard in this league and you’ve got to be happy when you win.”
Relieved, too, sometimes.
The Canucks chartered home overnight, and play the Los Angeles Kings at Rogers Arena on Friday.