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Rapidly maturing Horvat is X-factor for Canucks

by Kevin Woodley /

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins admitted he wasn't comfortable having 19-year-old center Bo Horvat in his lineup to the start the season. Now he's counting on Horvat to play a big role in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Horvat slowly earned Desjardins' trust throughout an impressive rookie season, going from fewer than 10 minutes of ice time per game in his first month to averaging almost 14 minutes since March 1. His line is playing third-line minutes, gaining confidence offensively while earning tougher defensive matchups from his coach.

Horvat has 10 of his 13 goals and 17 of his 25 points since the All-Star break. During a recent nine-game stretch without a point, Desjardins said he was more impressed by Horvat's play in his own end, including when he was matched up against Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter during a crucial 2-1 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

"That line's job is to play against some of the other teams' top lines," Desjardins said. "I was able to play them against Kopitar and Carter, and if you can play a 19-year-old against those guys, they are doing a great job, whether they score or not."

Horvat turned 20 on April 5, but for all his coach's emphasis on defense, his growth since the start of the season might be better measured by points. After proving he could play in the defensive zone, Horvat focused on helping in the other end.

"After the All-Star break, I started hanging on to the puck a little more instead of wanting to give it away right away and being afraid to make a mistake," Horvat said. "Playing well defensively opened a lot of eyes, and I think I gained Willie's trust even quicker when he knew I could play well defensively. And once I gained his trust, you try to hold on to the puck more, make more happen on the offensive side of the puck, and I think it's benefited me the last half of the year."

So has Horvat's ability to win faceoffs in his first NHL season.

He ended the nine-game point drought Thursday by winning an offensive-zone draw that led directly to a Ronalds Kenins goal in a 5-0 win against the Arizona Coyotes.

Horvat is the only Vancouver center to win more than 50 percent of his faceoffs this season. His ability on draws could further enhance his role in the playoffs.

"In the beginning, I don't think maybe Willie trusted him as much; he had to prove he could do it," linemate Jannik Hansen said of Horvat. "There is a lot of ice time that gets lost if your center can't win faceoffs in his own end, but once you get there, there is no limit as to when you can be thrown out, and that's why we see the ice time we are seeing."

Horvat knows defense will be a priority in the Western Conference First Round against the Calgary Flames, who are paced by a speedy, skilled top line that includes Johnny Gaudreau, who tied the Ottawa Senators' Mark Stone for the rookie scoring lead.

After a summer spent improving his pace, the 6-foot, 206-pound center has answered any concerns about being able to keep up in that matchup.

"When I saw him at [development] camp in summer, I wondered if he can play at this pace, and early in exhibition it was the same," said Desjardins. "He found a way. He's adjusted his game, and a lot of it comes from the mental part. He's real smart, so he saves a step."

Horvat, who added muscle during the season, has taken many steps as a rookie, but isn't worried he will need another one in the playoffs.

"I don't think I should change anything," Horvat said. "Just go out and play the way I have all season. Maybe tighten up in the D-zone a little more, but other than that just play my game and enjoy the ride."

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