On Day 1, it was Job 1 for Rick Tocchet.
The new Vancouver Canucks head coach had to reach the competitive and combustible J.T. Miller on competitive and emotional levels to ensure a critical buy-in to carry the culture and lead by example.
Tocchet knew the potential.
He saw a lot of himself in the loud, proud, productive force that is the multi-dimensional Miller. He would be challenged to harness those heart-on-my-sleeve moments of frustration to become a more complete player.
And a meaningful move to the middle with the trade departure of Bo Horvat was by design. It would test Miller’s quest to become that reliable and respected 200-foot presence and generate offence by increasing defensive awareness.
The results have been remarkable.
Miller was tied for fourth in NHL scoring heading into league play Sunday with 63 points (21-42) in 46 games. It includes eight power-play goals, four game-winners, a short-handed effort and a 54.2 per cent presence in faceoffs. And his 22.1 per cent shooting percentage leads the league’s top-nine point producers.
Miller is also on pace for a career highs in goals (37), assists (75) and points (112). He can thank Tocchet for being supportive and stern when warranted and it’s why he has become the messenger.
Tocchet wants his club to own the day by being as good in practice and it has been in topping the NHL with a 31-11-4 record and 16-4-1 dominance on home ice. The highest-scoring team doesn’t get distracted and is the only team to not lose three-straight games.
It has become the way to retain a laser focus by staying in the moment and owning the day.
“They came up with that during camp, and as a leader, we talk about that as a group,” stressed Miller. “We don’t evaluate the game on winning or losing. It’s how we play. Sometimes, you can have a horseshoe up your butt and win 4-1.
“It’s on us to hold ourselves accountable and the coaches do a great job of that and evaluating our game to play the right way. Sometimes, you outplay a team and don’t win, and that’s all right. You can live with that if you bring the effort.
“Our results are raising the bar. We talk about a culture and a standard and we’re chipping away at that a little bit at a time. In the long haul, it’s just nice to play the right way. You get rewarded.”
Here’s what the Canucks are facing this week:
Blackhawks at Canucks
When and where: Monday 7 p.m. | Rogers Arena
TV: SN Pacific | Radio: Sportsnet 650
Why watch: It’s not them, it all about us
The Canucks don’t panic when the heat is turned up. They manage the situation and has resulted in a 28-0-1 record when leading after two periods. The confidence that comes with prevailing is a stepping-stone to have a strong playoff pedigree come April.
Hard to imagine the Canucks will succumb to the Blackhawks, who have eight injured forwards, including North Vancouver phenom Connor Bedard. The rookie sensation suffered a fractured jaw Jan. 5 at could be sidelined eight weeks.
Who to watch: Centre Jason Dickinson
The former Canucks third-line centre was acquired from Dallas and signed to a three-year deal. He was to be a steadying force, anchor the penalty kill and contribute offensively. But in a season to forget, he had but 11 points (5-6) in 62 games and had sleepless nights trying to prop up a historically porous penalty kill.
He’s now a second-line centre and second in Blackhawks scoring with 24 points (15-9). He was signed to a two-year contract extension that has a US$4.25 million annual cap hit.
Blues at Canucks
When and where: Wednesday 7 p.m. | Rogers Arena
TV: SN Pacific | Radio: Sportsnet 650
Why watch: Avenging a night to forget
A 5-1-1 recent road trip dominance started with a sour effort in St. Louis. In a 2-1 game there for the taking, the Canucks allowed Robert Thomas to take a cross-ice pass and get a clean look at the net for the winning effort. The biggest problem for the Canucks wasn’t a lack of shots with 26, but a lack of finish in the final frame.
Who to watch: Winger Connor Garland
The rejuvenated winger scored twice and added an assist Saturday in a 6-4 win over the Maple Leafs. His speed, reads, strength on forecheck and finish is turning into quite the redemption story. He has 15 points (6-9) in his last 17 games and 24 points overall (8-16).
Blue Jackets at Canucks
When and where: Saturday 7 p.m. | Rogers Arena
TV: Hockey Night in Canada. Radio: Sportsnet 650
Why watch: Avenging an afternoon to forget
A seven-game, 13-day travel odyssey ended at Columbus in a 4-3 shootout loss after a zigzag travel from a blizzard in Buffalo. The Canucks got in late Sunday for a Monday matinee and would lose their legs. They were outshot 25-10 in the second period and 43-30 overall.
Who to watch: Winger Nils Hoglander
Not only did he score twice Saturday to hit a career-high 14 goals, his determination to stay in The Show is admirable. A fourth-line bowling ball, who has cut down mistakes and penalties, he has earned more trust and more minutes from Tocchet.
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