The last few springs haven’t been enjoyable for Bo Horvat.
Horvat’s only previous NHL playoff experience was a six-game, opening-round loss to Calgary back in 2015 when he was a Vancouver Canuck rookie. Vancouver has missed the playoffs every season since, until this year.
“It hasn’t been fun,” said Horvat. “I’m the type of guy who watched the playoffs [on television]. You want to see what it’s all about. It’s the best kind of hockey you can play. It’s the best hockey being played. I wanted to get back here.”
Now that he’s back, Horvat is making a difference.
He scored two highlight reel goals, including the winner in overtime on a breakaway, in Vancouver’s 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues Friday night. The Canucks lead the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-0 in their best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series, which could be decided in back-to-back games Sunday and Monday.
WATCH | Canucks captain Horvat secures Game 2 victory in OT:
Horvat’s first goal Friday came on a gritty end-to-end rush with the Canucks playing shorthanded. He blew past Blues’ forwards Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz before lofting a puck over goaltender Jordan Binnington for a 1-0 lead.
In the overtime, Horvat took a perfect bank pass from rookie Quinn Hughes, outskated defenders Carl Gunnarsson and Alex Pietrangelo, and beat Binnington five hole.
It was the second time in as many games Horvat has scored two goals. Heading into Saturday he led all playoff players with six goals.
Along with Hughes and goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the 25-year-old from London, Ont., has played a starring role in Vancouver’s success. Typically, he prefers to share the spotlight.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my game,” said Horvat. “I can’t take all the credit. We are playing some good hockey now and have to keep it going.”
Canuck coach Travis Green said Horvat is “playing phenomenal” and “as good as I’ve seen him.” Linemate Tanner Pearson said the six-foot-one, 216-pound centre is built for the playoffs.
‘We have to be harder on him’
Maybe most telling, Horvat has moved to the top of the Blues’ list of problems that need to be solved.
“We have to be harder on him one-on-one,” said Pietrangelo. “He’s a strong player. We just have to find a way to take away his space.
“It’s going to be a collective effort. We’ve done a good job on the other guys. We just have to keep an eye on him.”
Besides scoring, Horvat has won almost 60 per cent of his faceoffs. He can play physical and is solid defensively.
‘Made for playoff hockey’
Green said Horvat wasn’t happy with his performance in the Canucks first two games of the opening round against Minnesota.
“He sat and watched video,” said Green. “The good thing about Bo is you can be honest with him, he can be honest with his game.
“He’s a big body that can skate. If anyone is made for playoff hockey, it’s Bo Horvat and he’s definitely on top of his game right now.”
The Canucks have dug the Blues a hole. According to the NHL teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series hold an all-time series record of 324-51.
The Blues are winless in five games playing in the bubble in Edmonton and have been outscored 19-11. The St. Louis power play has managed two goals on nine chances against Vancouver and the penalty kill has given up five goals on nine shorthanded situations.
The Blues played some of their best hockey of the postseason Friday, erasing a two-goal, third-period deficit and scoring the tying goal with just 6.4 seconds remaining. Still they lost.
Winger David Perron has turned a deaf ear to talk St. Louis is headed for an early playoff exit.
“It doesn’t matter what people say on the outside,” he said. “What matters is how we play and what we believe in in this room. The way we played [Friday] was exactly what we need to play.”
In a normal season, the Canucks would be returning to Vancouver to play the next two games in a loud, sold-out Rogers Arena.
In the days of COVID-19, the games will be played in an empty rink.
Pearson, who won a Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, agreed the new normal makes things different.
“As a group we’ve done a good job of creating our own emotion as a team,” he said. “The fans aren’t there but at the same time everyone is in the same boat. You have to do it yourself.”