Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet praises third line work as homestand stretches on

VANCOUVER — Rick Tocchet is focused on the chemistry and hard work his third-line forwards bring to the Vancouver Canucks, not the number of goals they produce.

The head coach shrugs when the subject of Conor Garland's diminished goal returns for the 2023-24 NHL season are brought up.

Garland (two goals, seven assists) has been a mainstay on the team's third line alongside Dakota Joshua and Teddy Blueger and although the offence has not flowed for the winger, Tocchet said he's happy with the line's performance and play.

"That line's been good," Tocchet said after his team's 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. "The last 10 games, very rarely they're in our end. When I do game review, very rarely do I have those guys on making mistakes in our end."

Tocchet has repeatedly spoken during the Canucks (18-9-1) strong start to the season of his desire for his lines to follow what he calls the team's "Bible."

That Bible includes forechecking, quick changes, stronger puck battles along the boards and quicker defensive reactions in the neutral zone.

Those staples, Tocchet says, have been taken to heart by his bottom two lines, particularly the team's third line.

"They have their fingerprints on chances," he said after practice on Friday. "They were rarely on with the chances against, why break that line up?"

Garland, who had a career-high 52 points for the Canucks in 2021-22, said he and his linemates believe they've shown their worth during the first quarter of the season.

"I think we’ve had success for a while, it’s just sometimes when you get points people think you’re playing better," Garland said. "But we just try to generate offence, o-zone shifts. We start a lot in the d-zone and finish a lot in the o-zone which is a sign we’re playing the right way."

The Canucks have thrived playing at home, going 10-3-1, but will need that focus Tocchet has demanded heading in to this week's matchups against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.

The Lightning (13-11-5) have been up and down on their road performances this season, having blown out the Carolina Hurricanes 8-2 on Nov. 24 only for the Dallas Stars to beat them 8-1 at the American Airlines Center last week.

Nikita Kucherov has had three game-winning goals in his last four games, having only been held off the scoresheet in a 5-1 loss to the Nashville Predators over that span.

Kucherov, 30, has a seven-point lead in the race for the Art Ross Trophy and Tocchet acknowledged the work his team will need to put in to keep him off the scoresheet.

"Arguably, the last eight years, if you're talking about one of the best pressure players in the league, how can he not be in the top?" said Tocchet on Sunday after the Canucks held an optional skate.

"You've got to know where he is on the ice at all times."

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has been vocal in calling for his team to be consistent, which Tocchet praised.

"He just knows at the right time when to lay off his players and when to give them a little bit of a push, that's hard to do," said Tocchet.

"I'm still learning that and experiencing, sometimes I'll call (Cooper) myself and ask his opinion on stuff and thank God he gives me some advice."

The Panthers (17-8-2), meanwhile sit second in the Atlantic Division and have won their last three games heading into their Tuesday matchup against the Seattle Kraken.

Thursday's game will also feature the induction of former Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo into the team's Ring of Honour.

Luongo played 448 regular season games and is the franchise leader in wins, shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage (both minimum 100 games played).

He also backstopped Vancouver to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

Luongo now works as the special adviser to Panthers general manager Bill Zito.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press