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Vancouver Canucks' Dakota Joshua, right, jumps in front of Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros, left, as the puck sails wide of the net during first period in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Vancouver on April 21.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

There are few players on the Vancouver Canucks that coach Rick Tocchet hasn’t improved in one way or another.

Sometimes it’s been through technical instruction on the ice. Others it’s been tough love delivered in his office. On the eve of the 2023-24 season, there was one player Tocchet seemed especially disappointed in.

Dakota Joshua.

The head coach felt Joshua hadn’t heeded his off-season challenge to show up for camp in the best shape possible. His preseason play was uninspiring. Tocchet called Joshua out in the media, saying his fourth-line role on the team wasn’t guaranteed. There were lots of people capable of taking it from him.

Message received.

It was the last time Tocchet would have to remind Joshua what the stakes were in the NHL. Tocchet believed in Joshua, who the Canucks had picked up in free agency in 2022 as a down-the-lineup, glue guy. The organization likely never imagined the player it would ultimately be getting.

Joshua made his presence felt in Game 1 of the Canucks’ first-round Stanley Cup playoffs opener Sunday against the Nashville Predators. It was the first playoff game in Vancouver in nine years. The building seldom sounded louder than when the Canucks hit the ice to start the game. Afterward, Vancouver players would speak in awe of the atmosphere in the building. Forward J.T. Miller said that other than his wedding and birth of his children, it was the most special experience he’d ever been a part of, one that brought some teammates to tears.

Even when the Canucks got down 1-0 early against the Preds, the Canucks’ famously-fickle boosters did not go quiet. That’s what nine-years of pent-up demand does to a fan base; gives it the power to believe, even in the face of early setbacks.

The game turned with Nashville holding a 2-1 second-period lead. The Predators got two more power-play chances in the second to extend their lead and another in the third, all of which were killed off by the Canucks. That set the stage for a Quinn Hughes point shot midway through the final period that was tipped by forward Pius Suter to tie the game.

Twelve seconds later, Elias Lindholm pressured the puck behind the net of Predators goalie Juuse Saros. It squirted to Conor Garland who found Joshua in front. He deftly lifted the puck into the top corner of the net – a goal scorer’s goal to be sure – to give Vancouver a 3-2 lead. He would add another into an empty net later in the game, to give him three points on the evening.

A game that was pretty evenly matched turned very quickly, around a couple of opportunistic shifts by the Canucks. And it was no surprise that Joshua and his linemate and good friend, Garland, were in the middle of it all.

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Of all the big names on the Canucks, the ones that shine in lights and who go to all-star games – Hughes, Miller, 40-goal-scorer Brock Boeser, slick Swedish centreman, Elias Pettersson – it’s been Garland and linemate Joshua who have been among the team’s most reliable performers. Their tenaciousness has made the pair favourites of their coach, who likely sees in them qualities he saw in himself as a player: a never-quit mentality and a willingness to go to those areas of the ice that often bring more pain than pleasure.

Garland would score 20 goals (and add 27 assists) during the regular season, while Joshua would net 18 goals and add 14 assists, despite missing 19 games with a hand injury suffered in a fight. Despite starting the season as a fourth-line role guy, Joshua has often ascended the lineup, had power-play time, and is often found on the ice in the game’s dying seconds when the team is trying to hold on to a one-goal lead.

“Dakota just didn’t know how good he could be,” Tocchet said after the game. “He knows now what it takes. He and Garland have added a swagger to this team.”

After a slow start to the season, the Predators came alive in the second half, posting the league’s best win-loss record from mid-February on. That’s why the Canucks’ three wins over the Preds early on in the season were meaningless coming into the playoffs.

This series will likely continue to be as tight as the opener. The two goalies – Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko and Nashville’s Saros – are among the league’s best. Scoring will be at a premium. Most of Vancouver’s lineup played solid. If there was a glaring omission to that assessment, however, it was Pettersson, who looked lost most of the evening.

Pettersson needs to step up his play and become more of a force in this series. At times Sunday, you wondered if he was even dressed for the game.

He’ll get that opportunity Tuesday. If the Canucks are to win this series, they’ll need their star centre to be a bigger part of it.

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