There’s a renewed sense of confidence in the Vancouver Canucks locker-room these days.
Not only has the group overcome a massive COVID-19 outbreak, but, upon their return, the Canucks have collected back-to-back wins over the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s just a testament to who we have in the locker-room,” defenceman Quinn Hughes said Tuesday after Vancouver doubled up Toronto 6-3.
“I’m just really proud of the guys right now and hopefully we can keep stringing it together. We’re not satisfied yet and [Toronto has] a really good team so to beat them twice is pretty good.”
The Canucks (18-18-3) mounted third-period comebacks in both wins over the Leafs.
Tuesday saw Toronto’s captain John Tavares score in both the first and second period, and Vancouver go down 3-2 early in the third thanks to a short-handed goal from Adam Brooks.
Coach Travis Green was impressed with how his side stuck with their game despite the adversity.
“That’s a pretty offensive team over there and obviously coming out getting the lead back in the second, I like how our team didn’t go into the tank when we gave up the short-handed goal,” he said. “We talked about keeping that energy level high and keep pushing and the guys responded great.”
Swedish rookie Nils Hoglander evened the score 6:43 into the third, streaking into the Leafs zone and rifling a shot past Toronto netminder David Rittich from the top of the right faceoff circle for his ninth goal of the year.
Then Tanner Pearson put the Canucks up with a power-play goal 9:48 into the frame, then built a cushion by capitalizing on some sloppy Leafs play.
The 28-year-old left-winger jumped on a turnover on the red line and bolted into Toronto’s end alone, firing a wrist shot past Rittich for his second goal of the night with just over seven minutes left to play.
Toronto had an excellent opportunity to claw back a goal with less than two minutes to go when Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers was called for slashing. The Leafs pulled Rittich for an extra attacker but couldn’t capitalize.
Instead, Brandon Sutter buried the empty-net strike with 36 seconds left on the clock. It was his second goal of the night.
Hughes also scored and registered a pair of assists, and forward J.T. Miller chalked up a pair of helpers.
Tuesday marked Vancouver’s second game back from a the NHL’s worst COVID-19 outbreak this season. Twenty-one players and four-coaching staff have tested positive for the virus since March 30, including Hughes.
The 21-year-old defenceman said he and his teammates are all working their way back to full health.
“Frankly my legs felt pretty good and I think we’re all just excited to play again,” Hughes said. “That’s part of it, you know having 18 or 19 days off from a game, I think it’s kind of like a reset button. I felt good tonight, I think a lot of the other guys felt you know better and we’ll just keep feeling better as time progresses here.”
Goalie Braden Holtby was key to both of the Canucks’ victories over the Leafs, posting 37-save performances on both Sunday and Tuesday.
“We just tried to go out there and work as hard as we can and grind as a unit,” he said of the wins. “I think in order for us to have a chance we just have to approach every game as a must win, and I think these last two we’ve fortunately been on the right end of things but there’s going to still be work to do and improvement to be made in order for us to make a real push.”
Vancouver now holds a 4-3 edge in the season series with Toronto (28-13-5) with two games to go.
Tuesday’s result extended the Leafs’ losing skid to five games, but coach Sheldon Keefe said his team needs to remain confident going forward.
“We can’t let the results that we’ve had here as of late disrupt what we’re trying to do as a team. Because there’s a lot of really positive things. And sometimes the puck goes in the net more than it should,” he said.
It was a tough night in net for Rittich, who stopped 23-of-28 shots.
“I’m taking full responsibility for this game,” Rittich said. “I think the players did a great job. They got three goals for me and I just didn’t respond. I’ve just got to get better.”
The Canucks will continue their homestand Thursday when they host the Ottawa Senators. The Leafs will be in Winnipeg to face the Jets the same night.
Leafs right-winger William Nylander was nearly a healthy scratch after missing a team meeting. He responded with a pair of assists. Toronto’s Zack Bogosian went crashing into the end boards midway through the second period. Keefe said he expects the defenceman to “miss some time.” Canucks defencemen Nate Schmidt and Olli Juolevi, and left-winger Jake Virtanen returned to the lineup after being placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 list during Vancouver’s outbreak. Goalie Thatcher Demko also returned, acting as Holtby’s backup.