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Tocchet’s system inspiring success for Canucks as hopes for Bedard fade into rearview

VANCOUVER – Poets talk about unrequited love. So do Vancouver Canucks fans. Self-loathing and guilt are part of their existence. But the guilty-pleasure thing is kind of nice for a change.

Winning hockey games in March has become a guilty pleasure in Vancouver.

Everyone understands, theoretically, that the recent winning and hard work and structural integrity is bad for the Canucks as spring approaches. With each win, Connor Bedard gets smaller in the rearview window as the Canucks creep away from the bottom of the National Hockey League standings, diminishing their odds for a draft lottery nobody on the West Coast is delusional enough to think the hockey team might actually win.

You’re not supposed to like winning games when it’s counter-productive, which is mostly when the Canucks have won since leaving the playoff bubble in Edmonton three years ago.

Knowing how they played in December and January, how can players look themselves in the mirror now? We feel shame.

But it’s hard not to like the Canucks the way they played Saturday against the Ottawa Senators or the previous Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs or for most of the last 10 games when the Canucks have taken 15 out of 20 points. Are you kidding — .750 hockey? Great, now they’re the garbage-time Boston Bruins.

Still, it is kind of fun to watch, especially for fans investing their money in tickets along with their emotions in this cursed team.

And it’s definitely fun for head coach Rick Tocchet, who has built the equivalent of the Acropolis in the seven weeks he has been running the Canucks, taking a team that was second-worst defensively in the NHL to one that now plays with both structure and discipline on a regular basis.

Against the Senators, for instance, the Canucks looked leaden at the start. In the first eight minutes, Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko stopped Brady Tkachuk in tight, Jacob Chychrun on a breakaway and Tkachuk, again, on a three-on-two. Two months ago, Demko’s teammates might have panicked and done something stupid or at least risky to try to change the momentum.

Saturday, however, they just got their feet moving, kept working to limit mistakes, kept putting the puck in good spots and kept pressing the Senators until they cracked. Ottawa made the mistakes Vancouver had for most of the season.

By the end, the Canucks had won 5-2 – they led 4-0 late in the third period – and allowed just 20 shots to a Senators’ team that had scored five or more goals in six of their last seven games to resuscitate their own playoff hopes.

“That’s a maturity thing,” Canuck centre J.T. Miller said. “The fact that we’re doing that now is a great sign. When the (expletive) hits the fan, we have a structure to fall back on. They’re going to get looks, mistakes are going to happen, turnovers are going to happen. But, like: ‘Everybody, just do your job.’ I feel like lately, everybody’s just doing their job. Something’s going to happen; you’re going to need your goalie. But let’s not compound the mistakes. We’re not giving up nearly as many big chances.

“All our offence that we’re getting is coming off frustrating the other team. They’re making mistakes, making us look good. We have a really strong system in place right now. It’s become a little more black and white for us versus a lot of grey area.”

Defenceman Kyle Buroughs said: “We’re not overcomplicating things and overcompensating for a team like that, a good team, that comes in and is hungry and trying to make playoffs. We’re not cracking. We’re sticking to the systems — just being our team.”

That team has won four straight games for the first time this season. They’ve allowed two or fewer goals in four of their last five games and have surrendered more than three only twice in the last 10 games. For comparison and context, the Canucks had a 17-game stretch before that when they allowed fewer than four goals just three times.

Seriously, what has happened?

“There’s a lot more trust within our system,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “Guys know exactly where each guy is on the ice. There’s a lot less guessing and it’s showing. It feels like we’re playing really tight hockey. Even when they came out really hard tonight and made a big push in the first 10 minutes. . . I thought we defended well to not give them much.”

Demko made 18 saves and didn’t face more than eight Senators shots in any period. After missing three months with a groin injury, the franchise goalie looks, well, like a franchise goalie.

Canuck penalty killing, which seemed determined even after the coaching change in January to maintain the worst PK record in NHL history, has OUTSCORED opposing power plays 7-5 in the last 10 games. Miller scored another shorthanded goal Saturday, working a give-and-go with Nils Aman to make it 2-0 in the second period after a giveaway and horrible defensive play by Alex DeBrincat.

Aman made it 3-0 with a tap-in after Dakota Joshua skated easily past Ottawa defenceman Nick Holden on a two-on-one. Andrei Kuzmenko, after an outstanding O-zone shift for Miller and Phil DiGiuseppe, and Sheldon Dries also scored for the Canucks.

Claude Giroux and Holden scored two minutes apart, starting at 13:39 of the third period, to give Ottawa some hope before the Senators imploded on a late power play, taking two silly penalties. Kuzmenko scored his 32nd goal into an empty net.

“The team’s been playing great,” Demko said. “Like, these last two games, holy cow. I mean, it looks great, especially the PK. That’s so big to have. I think our confidence there in that area is probably the best it has been two years now. Guys are playing the right way.”

Yes, it’s frustrating. But kind of fun, guilt and all.


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