VANCOUVER – Having trained and implored his new team to play faster, Vancouver Canuck coach Travis Green brilliantly enabled them to do so Saturday with a genius lineup move in the National Hockey League team’s season-opener: he played Bo Horvat. A lot.
Horvat rocketed past Matt Benning to score spectacularly in the first period and launch the rebuilding Canucks to a 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers that was as entertaining as it was impressive.
Later, Horvat pilfered the puck from defenceman Oscar Klefbom behind the Oilers net, darted to the crease and tucked the puck inside the post before goalie Cam Talbot was fully prepared. It was the last save Talbot had a chance not to make because Edmonton coach Todd McLellan hooked his starter when Horvat’s second goal put the Canucks ahead 3-1 just 32 ticks into the second period.
Like Connor McDavid, Horvat was everywhere, which is kind of what you’d expect after he eclipsed Danny and Hank Sedin last season as the Canucks’ best player, then signed a six-year, US$33-million contract a year ago to become part of the foundation for the renovation.
Horvat and the Canucks were so good that for 60 minutes a few people forgot that Green, the rookie coach, scratched from his opening-night lineup 20-year-old wonder boy, Brock Boeser, who had four goals in a nine-game NHL cameo at the end of last season and then led Vancouver in pre-season scoring.
But the Canucks don’t play for three days – Tuesday at home against the Ottawa Senators – so there is plenty of time to, uh, rationally discuss among yourselves the Boeser decision.
Boeser, you understand, does not skate well. It’s the weakest part of his game. The Oilers, on the other hand, skate better than just about anyone – and it’s not all in McDavid’s slipstream. The Oilers fly. Boeser is learning to crawl in the NHL. So Green, knowing it would make him as popular in Vancouver as a tarsands pipeline through Stanley Park, scratched Boeser.
Luckily, Green still has a perfect coaching record: 1-0.
There is a lesson in Horvat’s game for Boeser.
Horvat, too, was a laborious skater when he was an NHL rookie, albeit, at 19, a year younger than Boeser. He skated then better than Boeser does now, but speed was still thought to be a limiting factor when projecting Horvat.
By the end of his first season, however, Horvat was at least a step quicker. He has continued to add both power and speed to his game, both on display as he overwhelmed Benning on his way to the net. Speed has become Horvat’s biggest weapon. It’s why he’s now an offensive centre, instead of a checking one.
“I think that’s one of the things I improved the most,” Horvat said after the game in which he outscored McDavid 2-0. “I worked hard in the off-season with my power-skating coach trying to get faster. Speed is a huge part of the game nowadays. You see all these young guys have so much speed – Connor and all these guys. That’s why I want to get better at it.”
Horvat is 22. He is one of the young guys.
“I think this gives our group a lot of confidence going into the next game and the 81 more that’s to come,” he said. “Obviously, we beat a pretty good team over there tonight. They had a great first game and we were ready for them tonight.”
McDavid had a hat trick in the Oilers’ 3-0 win Wednesday against the Calgary Flames.
Against the Canucks, who are supposed to finish at the opposite end of the standings than the Oilers, McDavid was held to two shots and no points in 24:38 of ice time. That wasn’t due to Horvat, but to Green’s checking line of Brandon Sutter between Derek Dorsett and Markus Granlund.
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“It’s challenging, but I take pride in it,” Sutter said of trying to shut down the best player on Earth. “The biggest thing is he’s going to get chances, he’s going to make plays (because) he’s such a great skater. Things are going to open up for him. But you just try to limit his second opportunities and keep him to a couple of shots. Our forwards and D did a really good job on him.
“It’s always nice when you win opening-night. To come out and play well against a really good team, that’s exactly what you want to do. I think we played pretty solid.”
The Canucks lost their final eight games of last season as they dived to 29th place. Then they even lost the draft lottery, falling to fifth from second in the order.
The win against the Oilers is their first since last March 25. It is important on numerous levels.
The Canucks had six new players in their lineup: five free agents and 21-year-old winger Jake Virtanen, who was given a team-low 7:34 of ice time. There’s a new starting goalie in Jacob Markstrom, who made 33 saves against the Oilers, new systems and new priorities. And there’s that new coach who seems to know what he’s talking about.