When the NHL season was placed on pause March 12 , the Vancouver Canucks were close to achieving something the franchise hasn’t seen in five years — a playoff game.
Yes, they’re technically on the outside looking in, with one less regulation win than the Predators, who are in eighth place in the Western Conference, but they have a clear shot at sneaking into the postseason; six of their remaining 13 games are against teams lower in the standings.
“I think the frustrating part is our team was really coming together, we’re learning a lot about each other,” forward J.T. Miller said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “We established an identity and we are going to be right in the thick of things coming down the last three weeks of the season, and it just sucks that we did a lot of good things to get to where we are now, and there’s going to be an exciting finish.”
When that happens — or even if it will happen — is anyone’s guess. As Miller noted, “I don’t think anybody wants to play in summer,” but that is obviously on the table. Only twice in NHL history has the Stanley Cup not been awarded : in 2005 amid a lockout, and in 1919 because of another pandemic, the Spanish Flu.
If the NHL were to resume the 2019-20 season, then Miller just wants a chance.
“I’m sure there’s some teams that would answer differently, but from our standpoint, we want it to be fair,” he said. “We’re obviously one of the bubble teams right now, so every point is going to matter and I think it’s going to matter who we play. I know we play a lot of opponents coming down the stretch, whether it was Vegas or Calgary or Phoenix, a couple [of] times that are all within a few points.
“I want a fair season.”
While Canucks fans haven’t seen the playoffs in a while, the postseason is old hat for Miller. The eight-year veteran has played in each of the last six postseasons, with deep runs as a member of the New York Rangers (2014 Stanley Cup Final, 2015 Eastern Conference finals) and Tampa Bay Lightning (2018 Eastern Conference finals). With all that experience, and after learning from some of the strongest leaders in the game, Miller, 27, has become a strong locker-room presence on a team with a mix of young and old players.
“I want to win really badly and I’m trying to make that a No. 1 priority for a lot of the younger guys,” he said. “When you’re young, it’s hard to put aside your personal success or personal business for the better half of the team and I think when you do put a team-first mentality into your game plan, and I think everybody buys into that . . . The will to win always seems to go up and when we play like that we’ve been a very effective team.”
The East Palestine, Ohio, native was having a career year for the Canucks after being acquired last June from the Lightning. He slotted nicely into the team’s top six and had 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists) in 69 games. It doesn’t hurt that he gets to play alongside Elias Pettersson, one of the NHL’s young stars.
“We like to make plays and finding the fine line of making the extra play or getting rid of the puck or shooting the puck, I think that we think similarly on those lines,” Miller said. “I learned a lot from him this year, watching him in practice and in the games, where his head is and where his eyes are, and where he delivers the puck or shoots the puck. It’s very impressive. He makes it very easy to play with him, I’ve told him that from Day 1 and when we play to each other’s strengths, I think that’s when we have most of our success.”
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These have been an interesting past 12 months for Miller. This time last year, he was on a Lightning team that many expected to win the Stanley Cup, only to get swept in the first round. He was then traded and has since put together his best season. Nothing, however, could have prepared him and his teammates for going to dinner on March 11 in Arizona and then having the game — and season — postponed the next day.
“I couldn’t really believe what was happening,” he said from his home in Vancouver.
“The whole situation … it feels like the world shut down for X amount of time and it’s just a very weird thing.”
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