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I Watched This Game: Miller scores overtime winner for Canucks over Capitals

A terrible turnover with five seconds remaining in overtime helped the Canucks avoid losing three straight for the first time this season.
Conor Garland, Nils Höglander, and J.T. Miller scored for the Vancouver Canucks in an overtime win over the Washington Capitals.

The Vancouver Canucks still haven’t lost three games straight in the 2023-24 season.

That’s a truly wild statistic because even great teams have a slide now and then. The 2010-11 Canucks, the most dominant team in franchise history, had two four-game losing streaks. The Boston Bruins, currently second behind the Canucks in the NHL standings, have had two three-game losing streaks and a four-game losing streak. 

Even the Bruins last season, when they set an NHL record with just 12 losses en route to the Presidents’ Trophy, had a three-game losing streak — and not just the three games they lost to the Florida Panthers to get knocked out in the first round after going up 3-1 in the series.

But the Canucks have managed to avoid losing three in a row, even if it was a close call against the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon. 

The Capitals took two leads against the Canucks and had multiple chances to end the game in overtime, but some brilliant goaltending from Thatcher Demko and a fluke turnover with five seconds left gave the Canucks the win.

“It was just a game where we had to stick with it,” said Demko. “On a back-to-back, travel, all that stuff — sometimes it’s not going to be pretty, but just staying with it mentally, kudos to the group.”

It was far from a perfect performance and the Canucks have plenty of things to iron out when they get back from their road trip and have some practice time. But the Canucks are now 2-1-1 on a tough road trip and just picked up three out of four points on back-to-back afternoon games. 

That’s the thing that made this game so tough. Early starts on a road trip can be hard on their own — add in that it was the second half of back-to-backs with travel in between just made it a little bit harder.

“It was just a mucky game. You’re going to these games in an 82-game schedule,” said head coach Rick Tocchet. “I thought some guys were tired, which means you have to play smart, and we turned the puck over a few times halfway through the game. I thought we were a little bit better as the game went on. Some games you’ve got to play when you don’t have your legs and you’ve got to play smart.”

For the most part, the Canucks played smart hockey when I watched this game.

  • Nikita Zadorov was out for this game after getting a two-game suspension for hitting Lucas Raymond in the head on Saturday. That meant Mark Friedman drew into the lineup for his first NHL game since November 30. He played limited minutes — he had just 11:07 in ice time — and took a high-sticking penalty, but he mostly acquitted himself well after the long time off in the press box.

  • “I thought Frieds did a nice job,” said Tocchet. “I think Footey had him out there with 3-4 minutes left. That shows confidence that he can play.”

  • The game got off to a horrid start with yet another early goal against, something that has plagued the Canucks of late. A minute into the game, former Canuck Nic Dowd snuck in behind Ian Cole to get to the front of the net and tipped in the centring pass from Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Cole did a shoulder check but seemed to completely miss that Dowd was there, much like when Jim Benning decided the Canucks needed Jay Beagle to centre the fourth line.

  • Demko was excellent for the Canucks all game, making save after save like a shiny-hunting Pokémon trainer. He finished the game with 32 saves on 34 shots. His saves late in the game were crucial but this belly-flopping stop on T.J. Oshie to prevent the Capitals from taking a 2-0 lead might have been his most important.
  • Conor Garland’s underlying numbers were sparkling in this game. When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, shot attempts were 17-to-5 for the Canucks and his expected goals percentage was 84.6%, according to Natural Stat Trick. While the rest of the Canucks might have been running on fumes, Garland apparently had a secret stash of NOS for this game.

  • Garland was so good that when Tocchet was asked about Nils Höglander’s performance, Tocchet couldn’t help but bring him up. “I thought Höggy was a dog on a bone,” said Tocchet. “These games when you know some guys are tired, you can tell for whatever reason, guys like Höggy shine because he’s a motor. I thought Garland and him were our best players. Garland was excellent tonight, so give those two guys a lot of credit tonight.”

  • Garland tied up the game on a heads-up play by Noah “Run The Juuls” Juulsen to catch the Capitals on a line change. Garland took Juulsen’s pass, moved in alone on the right wing, and went down on one knee to perfectly place the puck just over Darcy Kuemper’s right pad and under his blocker.

  • Juulsen is basically unrecognizable from the player that started the season. I don’t think the Juulsen from earlier this season makes that pass to Garland. About the only thing that remains the same, ensuring that this isn't a Ship of Theseus situation, is that Juulsen can still absolutely destroy an opponent in open ice, like this perfectly-timed hit on Beck Malenstyn.
  • Tocchet deployed the line of Elias Lindholm, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser in a match-up role against the Capitals’ top line and I’m just not sold on that combination playing that role. It was an incredibly high-event game from that trio — shot attempts were 24-to-13 for the Capitals when they were on the ice at 5-on-5, while high-danger chances were 7-to-1. If the Capitals were a more dangerous offensive team, that match-up could have spelled disaster for the Canucks.

  • The Capitals took the lead on a lucky bounce but they wouldn’t have gotten that bounce without a bad play by the Canucks. Dakota Joshua, who otherwise had a great game, tried to flip the puck out of the zone and didn’t get all of the puck, allowing Oshie to make like DaRon Bland and intercept the pass. As the Canucks scrambled back, Alex Ovechkin sent a backdoor pass to Oshie that deflected in off Nils Åman’s skate.

  • I don’t know why, but I had to laugh at Phil Di Giuseppe’s loud interlocution when a Capitals player tried to call for an icing: “No, I touched that!” You sure did, PDG. You sure did.
  • A minute after Ovechkin’s goal, Nils Höglander scored one for the highlight reel. He was the Mac Daddy to Elias Pettersson’s Daddy Mac on the entry, kris-krossing behind to pick up the drop pass, then drove around Martin Feharvary and made like he was going to drive to the net before pulling up and roofing the backhand, putting the puck up top where his “O” keeps the umlauts.

  • “We were all yelling skate at [Höglander], he was just cruising up the middle, and then all of a sudden, three seconds later, he’s having a highlight-reel goal,” said Garland. “He’s been great for us all year. It’s nice to see him get rewarded because he’s been playing really well lately.”

  • Demko came up with big stops on a late penalty kill in the second period, then made eight more saves in the third period to preserve the tie, and another four in overtime to give the Canucks a chance to win. This was one of Demko’s best games of the season.

  • The Canucks had a massive opportunity to end the game in regulation on a late power play but they managed just a single shot on goal. The power play has managed to chip in goals in recent games but they still don’t look like they’re firing on all cylinders. At most, they're firing on one — maybe two — cylinders at any given time.

  • Overtime was wild, with chances at both ends and a post for Rasmus Sandin as Demko sprawled across to take away the net. This game looked like it was surely heading to a shootout but the Canucks got a major break with five seconds left. It seems like the hockey gods — specifically PDOseidon — are still smiling on the Canucks.

  • Pettersson pressured Connor McMichael and, instead of eating the puck against the boards to kill off the clock, McMichael forced a pass that slipped behind John Carlson and went right to J.T. Miller. Unlike McMichael, Miller made no McMistake and ripped the puck past Kuemper’s blocker to win the game.

  • “That’s a good finish by Millsy, he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Garland. “Even if that doesn’t go in and we lose in the shootout, we had a good effort. We are pretty aware of when we play well and when we don’t. That’s the best thing about us, when we have a bad effort, we’ll follow it up with a good one.”