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Since entering the NHL together as expansion brethren in 1970, the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres have existed on an oddly parallel track.
They share, of course, a history of futility: 50 years, roughly zero Stanley Cups between them.
But it goes deeper than that. While there have been moments of inspiration — three Cup finals for the Canucks, two for the Sabres — both franchises have largely been an afterthought for the rest of the NHL: a regional phenomenon whose following doesn’t extend beyond the Rocky Mountains for the Canucks or western New York for the Sabres.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Sabres’ only trip to Vancouver this season came with both teams at a similar point in their evolution. After extended periods of comprehensive suckage, both have built a foundation that is starting to show signs of life. Both have emerging stars in the lineup who figure to be marquee players through the new decade. And both have created hope in their fan base that the worst is finally over.
So which team is further ahead in its development? Which team figures to make the great leap forward first? Based on the visual evidence from Saturday, it’s difficult to provide a definitive answer.
But in the there and now one thing is certain: These are the games the Canucks have to win if they have any hope of staying in the playoff picture.
While there were any number of intriguing subplots to Saturday’s matinee, the only relevant talking point was a 6-5 Canucks’ overtime win which, for the moment, has them above the playoff bar in the West with the cast from Braveheart in hot pursuit.
“It’s pretty tight,” understated overtime hero J.T. Miller. “You can go from second to sixth in one game. We all know it’s tight and these games all matter.”
You might say. In the West, seven points separate second through 12th in the conference standings. The Sabres, who are without young stud defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, live in a world where seven points separate two through 10 in the East.
“Every game is important,” Miller continued. “We have to play our best to get in.”
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vancouver Canucks
7 p.m., Rogers Arena , TV: SNETP, Radio: SNET 650 AM
Saturday, the Canucks weren’t at their best but they squeezed two points out of a back-and-forth affair that they seemed to control everywhere but the scoreboard. Twice, they opened two-goal leads. With a minute left, they were still clinging to a one-goal lead when the Sabres’ Marcus Johansson scored on a tip-in to send the game into extra fun.
The overtime was equally perilous for the Canucks. Sabres wunderkind Jack Eichel, the man who’s brought hope to Buffalo, appeared to score the game-winner about the time Henri Jokiharju was running interference on Jake Virtanen. If Eichel doesn’t score, there’s a good chance that call isn’t made.
As it was, the Canucks had just taken four consecutive minors so maybe some payback was due.
“We’re definitely conscious of playing the right way with the lead,” said Miller, who blew the top off the water bottle with a wicked one-timer for the game-winner. “I don’t think we sat back. We’re not going to overthink it.”
No, if it isn’t abundantly clear by now, virtually every game the Canucks play from now until the first week in April figures to have playoff implications. The good news is they appear to have closed the gap on teams like the Sabres, who looked to be ahead of them on the developmental curve.
They now have some depth. There is scoring from different places in the lineup. Saturday, they earned the win on so-so nights from Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, who both counted a pair of assists but generated two shots on net between them.
Last year, that was a recipe for a loss. This year, they got a couple of goals from Josh Leivo and Antoine Roussel. Saturday also marked the 13th time this season they scored five or more goals in a game. They had 11 all of last season.
The other point of interest to emerge from the Canucks’ win concerned Bo Horvat, who was removed from the game with just over three minutes left by the concussion spotter. Horvat was hit by the Sabres’ Brandon Montour with just over five minutes left in the third, played a shift, then was escorted to the quiet room with just over three minutes left in regulation.
Horvat, of course, is the Canucks go-to faceoff man. Without him, head coach Travis Green had Adam Gaudette’s line out trying to defend the lead in the last minute when Johansson scored.
“I feel completely fine,” Horvat said when he met with the media after the victory.
The captain, in fact, was on his way to rejoin the battle when Miller scored.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Horvat said. “It caught me by surprise. I knew right away when they pulled me off. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to see the end of the game.'”
But he was there for the post-game celebration with his teammates, the only thing that mattered on this day.
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LISTEN: Canucks beat writer Patrick Johnston, with editor Paul Chapman, explains how the Canucks’ offseason acquisitions have boosted the team’s depth and helped them to sweep their first homestand of the season. Goals from the defence corp are a big part of it, along with starring roles for new additions Tyler Myers, J.T. Miller and rookie Quinn Hughes. The podcast also covers the role of the front office and whether Patrick expects any more roster shuffling this season, and the big changes in local sports media and how much people care about the media that cover their team.
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