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Miller’s silly yet brilliant shirt prank keeping Canucks loose ahead of pivotal Game 6

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NASHVILLE — Arturs Silovs’ dress shirt was like something a Coho salmon might wear on its wedding day.

But J.T. Miller wore it better.

The Vancouver Canucks’ culture-monitor and chief purveyor of pranks couldn’t resist lifting the shirt from Silovs’ locker, repurposing it as an outer layer over his hockey equipment and then wearing it on to the ice for the start Thursday’s practice — ahead of the Canucks’ biggest game in nearly a decade. 

Miller skated for several minutes in the resplendent salmon-coloured shirt that popped with bold paisley patterns.

“It’s a terrible shirt and it fit perfectly over my shoulder pads,” Miller explained an hour later. “And you just hope he never wears it again. Obviously, if I’ve got a chance to crack at a young guy, that was a good opportunity. But it gave the guys a laugh.”

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Which was Miller’s far more important achievement than embarrassing Silovs, the 23-year-old minor-league callup who has played the last two games in goal for the Canucks and could start again in Game 6 against the Nashville Predators on Friday (see below).

Miller declined initially to even identify for Sportsnet the owner of the shirt, unaware that Silovs had long been outed on social media by broadcast reporter and host Dan Murphy.

“Well, I mean, he’s got to know better,’” Canuck defenceman Nikita Zadorov said, referring not to Miller but Silovs. “It’s not a nightclub in Riga, Latvia.”

Asked at the end of his post-practice news conference about the prank, coach Rick Tocchet wondered aloud if it was the goalie’s golf shirt.

Staff member: “I think it was his dress shirt.”

Tocchet: “Oooph.”

Laughter ensued.

Which, again, was the point for Miller, the 31-year-old leader on a team that started the Stanley Cup tournament with nine players who had never logged a real National Hockey League playoff game.

Tuesday in Vancouver, the Canucks blew a third-period lead and lost 2-1 to the Predators in Game 5 as Vancouver failed on its first chance to win a non-COVID playoff series for the first time since 2015.

Their series lead narrowed to 3-2, the Canucks flew 4 ½ hours east to Nashville on Wednesday with pressure mounting ahead of Game 6 and, heaven forbid, a possible seventh game on Sunday at Rogers Arena.

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The team is not scoring. Superstar Elias Pettersson has disappeared. The Vancouver media is doing what we do. And did you hear the Canucks are on to their third goalie?

And then Miller acted like a child, causing people to laugh or roll their eyes, easing some tension around the Canucks and reminding teammates how lucky they are to be playing a game they love and with a chance to advance to the second-round of the playoffs on Friday night.

It was stupid and brilliant.

“Loosens the guys,” Tocchet said. “I think that’s a big thing because it’s high pressure. This is high pressure, and you have to stay loose. Even on the bench, you know, you’ve got to make sure that you stay loose. Because the last thing you need is a tight bench.”

And the second-to-the-last thing you need is a goalie controversy, although the possibility of Tocchet sticking with Silovs after the flashy-dressing Latvian stopped 47 of 52 shots while going 1-1 the last two games is understandable.

Game 6 has felt like Casey DeSmith’s start. The popular, veteran backup was well enough to watch Silovs from the bench on Tuesday after missing one game following his own stellar start in Game 3.

DeSmith stopped 29 of 30 shots during the Canucks’ 2-1 victory last Friday, then practised the next day in Nashville before being held out of Game 4 for what Tocchet said were precautionary reasons related to a lower-body injury.

“If Smitty feels good enough to go and we feel it’s safe to go in there, you’d go with Casey, right?” Tocchet said on Sunday. “But saying that, we’ve got Arty and we’re confident with him. I think we (can) win either way. I think the prudent thing is to get Casey healthy before we make any decision.”

Well, DeSmith is healthy but the decision, which was to be made internally Thursday afternoon, is not as straightforward as Tocchet had made it seem.

“Health-wise, what’s the percentage?” Tocchet explained Thursday when asked about his reasoning. “Practise — how many times he has practised is a big thing? Are you tentative or not on a post-to-post save? Things like that come into play. 

“Casey is one of the best guys you’ll ever coach, unreal guy in the room. But, you know, I make my decision on the crest. It’s a team thing.”

Earlier, DeSmith told Sportsnet that he has never been in a position where he was deemed healthy enough to back up but not start.

“Just having the capability to play, but not being allowed to play is a tough situation to be in,” he said. “But, you know, it’s a unique situation (for the team). Demmer (Vezina Trophy finalist Thatcher Demko) is hurt for who-knows-how-long, and I guess they were just trying to prioritize health while we were in a good situation in the series. But, of course, it’s frustrating for me.”

DeSmith, who went 12-9-6 in the regular season before playing one of his best games of the year in Game 3, said he lobbied goaltending coach Ian Clark to start on Tuesday.

“He was unmoved,” DeSmith smiled. “They’ve been up front about the reasons behind why they’re doing what they’re doing. Obviously, I don’t know who’s behind every little decision. But I just have to trust that they’re doing what’s best for the team. And as long as I believe that they’re doing what’s best for the team, then I support it. 

“It might be frustrating for me, but my job as a good teammate and a member of this organization is to support every decision that’s made as long as it’s in the best interest of the team. And I think everybody who’s making those decisions, that’s what they’re thinking about. They’re thinking about the long run. They’re thinking about the team as a whole and the success that we’re looking to have for the next four weeks, not just one week.”

To make it to next week, the Canucks must win Friday or Sunday. And to do that, they need more than the 18.4 shots they’ve averaged in this fierce, low-scoring series. 

Tocchet conceded there has been an over-correction since Game 2 when the Canucks had 33 shots blocked and managed to put only 18 of 84 shot attempts on Predator goalie Juuse Saros. To avoid Nashville shot-blockers, the Canucks were instructed to shoot for teammates’ sticks and look for tips and redirects. But now, too many Vancouver players are trying slap-passes rather than aiming on goal.

One of the worst offenders in Game 5 was Pettersson, who has just two assists and seven shots on target through five games.

“He came up to me — we did a video today — he said, ‘Toc, I’ve got to move my feet,’” Tocchet told reporters. “So I told him: ‘I don’t care what you say after that, just do that.’ He knows how to play the game. He knows how to play defence. He knows our system. That was music to my ears. He said it; I didn’t have to tell him.”

The Canucks practised Thursday with unchanged forward lines and defence pairings. The only lineup change among skaters Tocchet has made all series was using defenceman Noah Juulsen in Game 2 when Tyler Myers was unable to play.



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