EDMONTON — The Vancouver Canucks, coming off their first playoff series win in almost a decade, face a new challenge Tuesday: their first win-or-go-home game of the NHL post-season.
And they will have a number of playoff newbies in the lineup when they try to overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Canucks’ veteran defenceman Chris Tanev said any perceived inexperience is misleading.
“Everyone’s played in these types of games throughout their life. Maybe not in the NHL for everyone, but guys have played at high levels their whole life and they’ve faced elimination before,” Tanev told reporters on a Zoom call Monday.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat said the key is not to get overwhelmed.
“You can’t go into this game gripping your stick too tight,” said Horvat. “Stick to your systems and get back to hard work and doing the little things right and everything else is going to take care of itself.”
About half the Vancouver lineup consists of players in their first NHL post-season: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Jacob Markstrom, Jake Virtanen, Tyler Motte, Thatcher Demko, Quinn Hughes, Troy Stecher and Adam Gaudette.
While they’re young, the Canucks have grown up in a hurry in the Western Conference return-to-play tournament, with the games being held in front of empty seats and echoing video screen messages at Rogers Place.
They rebounded from a 3-0 shutout in Game 1 of the qualifying series to beat the Minnesota Wild in three straight.
When the St. Louis Blues bounced back from a 2-0 deficit in the next series to tie it, looking like they’d found their groove, it was the Canucks who stole back the momentum, wining the next two games and closing out the Stanley Cup champions.
St. Louis was the first playoff series win for Vancouver since they beat the San Jose Sharks in the final-four round in 2011. The Canucks went on that year to lose to Boston in the Stanley Cup final. They had not been in the playoffs at all since 2015.
They have shown similar resilience against the Golden Knights, getting dominated 5-0 in the opener before getting off the canvas to administer the most lopsided beating Vegas has received in the playoffs this year, a 5-2 defeat.
Even in Sunday’s Game 4, when the Canucks let a 3-2 lead slip away in the third period, they had their chances to tie it rather than see their offence die on the vine against Vegas’ suffocating lockdown defence.
And the newbies are among those leading the way.
Pettersson has six goals and 17 points, is buzzing to the net and getting open.
Hughes registered two assists in Sunday’s loss and has a goal and 12 assists in the playoffs. But the Calder Trophy candidate has seen his time and space crunched by the punishing Vegas forecheck. He has just three shots on goal in four games and his plus-minus is a gruesome minus-7.
Markstrom has been the workhorse and the reason Vancouver has gone this far, but Sunday was his 14th game in 29 days and his third back-to-back. And he has faced, for the most part, well over 30 shots most nights.
To win Game 5, Vancouver could use help from their bottom six forwards. Pluggers like Motte, Virtanen, Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter stepped up on the scoresheet to power Vancouver past St. Louis.
Among the top six, Boeser needs to get going. He has scored once in 11 games and has managed just 11 shots on net in 10 games versus St. Louis and Vegas.
Vegas is getting help from all four lines, particularly third-line right winger Alex Tuch. Tuch is on a roll, getting a goal in each of the first three games against Vancouver and seven for the post-season.
“(Secondary scoring) is critically important this time of year,” said Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer.
“It takes some pressure off the big guys that they have to score every night. It takes some pressure off your power play that you have to score every time you get an opportunity.”
Vancouver head coach Travis Green, asked about bottom-six production, said: ”We got some depth scoring last series. I’m not going to go and start putting pressure on certain guys to score. You win and lose as a team.
“If you get (secondary scoring) that’s great. You can still find ways to win if you don’t.”
Only one series so far has gone the distance: Toronto and Columbus in the qualifying round. That has led to speculation the will to win is not as strong in the year of COVID, with players locked in a bubble away from family and friends between games.
Asked about that, DeBoer said: “If you’re insinuating (whether) I get the sense that teams are easier to eliminate because we’re in a bubble and they want to go home, I would say absolutely not.
“I think anybody who is left here is committed to being here right to the end.”
A loss by Vancouver would extend a dubious national drought. A Canadian team has not won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings in the spring of 1993.
At that time, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, “Jurassic Park” opened in movie theatres, and the other three teams currently in the Western Conference final four didn’t exist. The Colorado Avalanche were the Quebec Nordiques, the Dallas Stars were in Minnesota, and Vegas wouldn’t appear for another 25 years.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 31, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press