VANCOUVER – Jake Virtanen went from thinking he might be heading back to junior to helping lead the Vancouver Canucks to victory.
The rookie forward scored his first NHL goal about 36 hours after learning he would be sticking with the Canucks as Vancouver downed the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Monday.
The Canucks announced Sunday that Virtanen and fellow 19-year-old Jared McCann would remain with club beyond the nine-game mark, triggering the first year of their entry-level contracts.
But before giving the players the good news, head coach Willie Desjardins pretended to criticize both Virtanen and McCann during a video session in front of the rest of the team.
“Going from getting ripped on video (Sunday) to getting the news to getting my first goal, it was pretty special,” said Virtanen. “It was really exciting. To get that one off my shoulders is good.”
With the Canucks already leading 2-1 in the third period, Virtanen took the puck hard to the net on a 2-on-1 and beat Flyers goalie Steve Mason on a backhand at 8:28 before Matt Bartkowski added his second of the season into an empty net with under a minute remaining.
“We had some fun with (Virtanen and McCann) the other day,” said Canucks goalie Ryan Miller, who finished with 27 saves. “It was nice to see them step up and take it in stride and go out there and compete hard.”
Desjardins said just because Virtanen and McCann, who leads the Canucks with five goals, are staying in the NHL doesn’t mean there can be any dip in their play.
“If I were those guys I think I would feel a little bit more relaxed, but at the same time, in this league every shift there’s pressure,” said the coach. “If you have a bad shift we’re in trouble.”
Bo Horvat, with a goal and an assist, and Jannik Hansen also scored as Vancouver (6-2-4) won its second straight game on home ice after dropping its first five.
The Canucks came in having already lost four games when leading after two periods, but put things to bed on this night with a strong effort.
“We knew that we had to focus and play hard,” said Virtanen, who had three shots and three hits in his best game as a pro. “We’ve just been really focusing on playing the full 60 minutes.”
Claude Giroux had the goal for Philadelphia (4-5-2), while Mason stopped 30 shots as the Flyers dropped their fourth in a row.
“I think there was a lot of improvement from the last three games,” said Giroux. “We have a lot of things we want to work on, but the score doesn’t show how much better we played.”
Horvat gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead at 10:10 of the second period with the teams playing 4-on-4, wheeling out from behind the Philadelphia net before firing a low shot past Mason for his second goal of the season.
The 20-year-old Horvat was in McCann and Virtanen’s shoes last season as a rookie and has been pressing to provide more offence early in the schedule.
“He just wants to contribute,” said Desjardins. “Sometimes the harder you chase something, the harder it is to catch.”
Wayne Simmonds came within inches of getting the Flyers even a few minutes later, but his shot rang off the post behind Miller. Vancouver then almost stretched its lead to 3-1, but Philadelphia’s Chris VandeVelde cleared a bouncing puck off the goal line.
Down 1-0 after the first on Hansen’s second, the Flyers tied things up at 2:54 of the middle period when Giroux protected the puck before roofing a backhand on Miller.
The Philadelphia captain’s fourth goal of the season and first in five games came after Mason made a great save on a Horvat breakaway moments earlier, but would be all the visitors could muster.
“It was a good battle by all our guys,” said Desjardins. “You could trust everybody.”
Notes: Monday was Virtanen’s ninth game, while McCann played his 10th. … Philadelphia continues a four-game road trip Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers. … Vancouver hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday before starting a seven-game road trip Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres. … Dan Hamhuis returned to the Vancouver lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury. Fellow defenceman Luca Sbisa has been placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.
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