TORONTO – J.T. Miller hopes to look back on Saturday as a watershed moment in his team’s push for a playoff spot.
“That’s one of the games you’re gonna remember,” said the Vancouver Canucks centre. “Every game feels like a do or die for us.
“You don’t want to be in that position, but you’ve got to embrace it.”
And embrace difficult moments on a roller-coaster night is exactly what the Canucks did.
Alex Chiasson scored the winner and Thatcher Demko made 34 saves as Vancouver came back from a goal down in the third period to defeat Toronto 6-4.
The Canucks built a 3-1 lead in the second before the Maple Leafs’ high-powered attack flexed its muscles for a 4-3 advantage through 40 minutes.
But Vancouver responded with a tip-in from Tanner Pearson early in the third and Chiasson’s go-ahead goal before Demko held the fort late to secure six of a possible eight points on a four-game road trip.
“It gives us that much more belief,” said Miller, who had a goal and an assist to stretch his point streak to nine games. ‘We have a good thing going right now.”
Pearson, Brock Boeser and Travis Hamonic also had goal and an assist each for Vancouver (28-23-6) before Tyler Motte scored into an empty net as the Canucks moved within three points of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
“Confidence is a big thing,” said captain Bo Horvat, who chipped in two assists. “We’re confident in our ability.
“We know what type of team we are, and what type of team we have to be.”
Auston Matthews replied with his 38th and 39th goals of the season for Toronto (35-16-4) to retake the NHL lead. John Tavares, with a goal and an assist, and Nick Robertson also scored for the Leafs.
Jack Campbell, who got his first start in a week after getting pulled in a crazy 10-7 victory last Saturday in Detroit against the Red Wings, stopped 23 shots.
“I’ve got (to be) better for the team,” the goaltender said after his save percentage dipped to an ugly .882 since Jan. 1. “It’s disappointing not getting the win when we played so well.
“I promise I’ll get out of it and get on a roll again.”
The Leafs grabbed that 4-3 edge through two periods only to have Vancouver respond 63 seconds into the third when Pearson squeezed his 12th through Campbell.
Vancouver, which opens a seven-game homestand Wednesday that will go a long way in deciding the club’s playoff fate, then nudged in front at 6:55 on a broken play where Mitch Marner lost his stick in the Toronto zone. Horvat threw a puck in front that the Leafs winger tried to kick away with his skate only to have it drop for Chiasson to snap his sixth past Campbell.
“I’ve been pretty hard on myself this year and obviously it’s snowballed a little bit,” said Campbell, who earned his first all-star nod for a lights-out first half of the campaign that now feels like a distant memory. “I’m trying to chill out a little bit about dissecting my game.”
Toronto’s top-ranked power play got a chance to equalize midway through the period, but Demko was there to deny William Nylander on the Leafs’ best opportunity.
The Vancouver netminder denied Matthews on the doorstep with three minutes left in regulation and Marner with Campbell on the bench for an extra attacker before Motte iced it into an empty net.
“They’re starting to believe in themselves,” said Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, who joked after the morning skate no one was giving his team a chance against Toronto. “When you have belief, then anything can happen.
“They played a great third period and Demko, in the last five minutes, was incredible.”
The Canucks went up 3-1 at 4:12 of the second on a power play when Boeser scored his 16th off a Miller rebound.
Toronto responded 1:21 later when Robertson – elevated to the second line in his fourth game since being recalled from the AHL – took a pass from Nylander and fired his first regular-season goal past Demko, who made a career-high 51 saves in the Canucks’ 3-2 victory over Toronto on Feb. 12.
He then denied Wayne Simmonds, playing in his 1,000th NHL game, with a stop at full stretch off a Jason Spezza feed.
Sitting third in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs kept coming before an under-pressure Boeser threw an ill-advised clearing attempt up the middle that Matthews one-timed upstairs for his 38th to tie things up at 8:52.
The home side continued to push before Matthews, who attempted the Michigan lacrosse-style move earlier in the period, scored his second of the night on another one-timer that went off Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes and past a stick-less Demko at 12:06.
“The Leafs want to exchange chances because they’re so good offensively,” Boudreau said of his team’s second period. “We can’t play that way.”
Vancouver opened the scoring at 7:48 of the first when Miller was quickest to a loose puck to bury his 22nd.
Coming off Wednesday’s ugly 5-1 loss to the lowly Buffalo Sabres in the first full home game with fans since mid-December after Ontario loosened COVID-19 restrictions, Toronto responded just over two minutes later when Tavares snapped a long goal drought.
The Leafs’ power play, which had gone seven contests without scoring, took advantage of a bad decision by Hamonic in the neutral zone that led to a 3-on-1. Marner fed Tavares for Toronto’s captain to fire home his 18th – and first in 15 games – before looking skyward in relief.
Campbell, who allowed five goals on 25 shots in Detroit seven days earlier, made a nice glove stop on Motte with four minutes left in the first to elicit a “Souuuuuup” chant from the Scotiabank Arena crowd.
But he was unlucky late in the period when Hamonic’s point shot went in off Leafs defenceman T.J. Brodie for the Vancouver blue-liner’s second to put the visitors up 2-1 in a game that would have plenty more twists.
“We beat a lot of good hockey teams on this road trip,” said Horvat, whose club also picked up victories over the Rangers and Islanders in New York.
“It should give us confidence, but we can’t get too high.”
Notes: Miller’s point streak includes six goals and 11 assists. … Robertson scored his first professional goal for Toronto in the 2020 post-season bubble.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2022.
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