Miller’s prank on Garland eases Canucks’ tension, leads to best game in a month

The only Vancouver Canuck not wearing a Conor Garland T-shirt Monday night was Conor Garland.

But he has one. It may be a collector’s item one day even if J.T. Miller, his pranking adversary on the Canucks, joked after the morning skate that a practice-worn Conor Garland shirt isn’t worth anything.

It was, however, worth a lot to the Canucks on Monday.

Losers of four of their last six games, their Pacific Division lead dwindling and the team without a win against a playoff-bound opponent in more than four weeks, Miller commissioning a team set of “Conor Garland 400 NHL Games” T-shirts eased some of the tension around the Canucks.

Then Vancouver went out and played its best game in a month, rallying from an early two-goal deficit to beat the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 at Rogers Arena – a preview of a potential first-round matchup when the National Hockey League playoffs open in two weeks.

In Garland’s 400th game, the five-foot-nine forward from Boston who scored a total of 13 goals in the minors during his first two seasons of professional hockey, scored twice for the Canucks, including the game-winner on a rebound.

Miller had three assists to reach 100 points for the season and winger Brock Boeser hit the 40-goal mark for the first time.

A day that began with teammates laughing at Miller’s mockery of his friend ended with Garland, 28, appearing close to tears as Canucks fans chanted his name during a post-game interview on the ice.

“It might go down as the worst player ever to have their name chanted in a stadium,” Garland told reporters afterward. “It’s obviously cool; that’s the reward of playing in a Canadian market, playing in a big market like Vancouver.

“The (400) games are nice. Obviously, I don’t want to take any for granted. I worked very hard to get here, so I enjoy every day of it. And hopefully there’s a lot more.”

Later, Garland laughed when asked if he had ever heard his name chanted.

“I got booed in every rink in junior, so that was the first time for me,” said Garland, who spent four years as a Quebec League scoring star before the Arizona Coyotes plucked in the fifth round of the 2015 entry draft. “That was pretty cool for me. Pretty different. Like I said, it’s a reward of playing in a Canadian market.”

It was actually Garland’s idea to have a special T-shirt made up to faux-celebrate a teammate. He enlisted Miller, his constant jousting partner in the Canuck dressing room, as a co-conspirator.

“Within five minutes of him telling me the idea, I was in talking to the equipment guys about getting the T-shirts made,” Miller told Sportsnet after the morning skate. “It was Gar’s idea to do it for someone else and my idea to do it to him. And they turned out perfect. 

“He was one of the last to arrive (for the morning skate) and when he walked in the room there were 18 guys wearing Garland shirts. It was perfect. My only regret is we didn’t have one for every single person in the organization.”

“He stole my joke,” Garland said helplessly, then vowed some kind of revenge on Miller, who should reach 800 NHL games on the last night of the regular season. “There’s going to be balloons everywhere or something.”

Garland admitted after the game that a prank like Miller’s was just what the Canucks needed.

“I wish it wasn’t me on it,” he said of the T-shirts. “But, you know, that’s what Millsy does so well for us. It’s nice to come in and everybody has a laugh in the morning. It’s a big game for us tonight and (you) relieve some stress. I know one guy wore it to the game. That was uncalled for. But it’s nice. It is, it is. It’s a long year and when you’re in a bit of a (difficult) stretch, you can use something like that. That’s what makes Millsy Millsy.”

What made the Canucks the Canucks again is the speed, aggressiveness and net-front robustness with which they played after the Knights, who beat Vancouver 6-3 in Vegas last week, scored on their first two shots against goalie Arturs Silovs.

But the Canucks got power-play goals 2 ½ minutes apart from Garland and Quinn Hughes late in the first period. And after Noah Hanifan’s screened shot on the power play reclaimed the lead for Vegas at 9:33 of the middle period, a similar shot by Boeser at even strength tied it for Vancouver at 13:10.

When Miller’s quick shot from the high slot ricocheted off goalie Logan Thompson, Garland was first to react at swept the puck in for the winning goal.

Struggling Canucks star Elias Pettersson collected a point for the third straight game and, importantly, was jamming the Knights’ net on the first three Vancouver goals. The shots by Boeser and Hughes probably wouldn’t have gone in with Pettersson standing in front of Thompson. 

Silovs got his third win in three NHL starts since his callup from the minors, stopping 20 of the final 21 shots he faced.

“You didn’t need a wakeup call for this game tonight,” Canuck defenceman Nikita Zadorov said. “You know, Stanley Cup champions and they could be our opponent in the first round, so we knew how important that game was. I thought all 20 guys showed up today and threw their best effort.”

The win nudged the Canucks, who have led the Pacific Division for three months, five points clear of the Edmonton Oilers, who have played two fewer games. The Canucks visit Edmonton on Saturday.

“It was a test for us, I guess, the way things have been going lately,” Miller said. “And for them to come out and get a couple (of goals) on a couple of shots, we easily could have sat back and said: ‘We’re in (the playoffs), we’ll try again next game.’ It was a very serious and professional mindset on the bench.

“We understand who we’re playing against and what might happen in the future.”

Maybe the Canucks should wear their Garland T-shirts again on Wednesday, when the Arizona Coyotes are at Rogers Arena.

“We’ve got to get a new one,” Miller said, “401.”