EDMONTON — The Vancouver Canucks are still alive in the NHL playoffs by outlasting the Vegas Golden Knights in a game that, by all statistical accounts, they had no business winning.
Vancouver head coach Travis Green isn’t apologizing for it, but says he also isn’t blind to the fact his team has to step it up in Game 6 Thursday at Rogers Place.
“I didn’t think we were at our best, but I’m never going to criticize a win too harshly,” Green said when asked Wednesday by reporters on a Zoom call about his team giving up 43 shots on net Tuesday, but still beating Vegas 2-1 to cut the Golden Knights’ lead to 3-2 in the best-of-seven second-round series.
“Especially in playoff hockey, when you find a way to win a game that you probably shouldn’t have, it’s not just luck,” added Green. “It’s compete. It’s buying in as a group. It’s blocking a shot.
“I expect our team to play a better game tomorrow, as far as with the puck and our skating. We weren’t quite skating the way we could. We weren’t great with the puck and when those two are in our game, it’s usually a recipe for playing in our own zone.”
It was recipe for disaster saved only by a storybook performance from backup goalie Thatcher Demko. Demko, making his first ever playoff start in place of a presumably injured Jacob Markstrom, made 42 saves in front of a Gatling gun of rubber as the Golden Knights repeatedly swarmed the Vancouver zone, aiming, firing, reloading and repeating.
Vegas had 22 shots blocked and missed the net on 14 more for a total of 79 shot attempts. Vancouver in response, mustered just 17 shots on net and 38 shots attempts at Robin Lehner.
Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers said they drew strength from fortuity.
“(Demko) did a great job of making some big saves for us to keep us in it,” said Myers.
“Basically after two periods, we said, ‘We’re not playing our best and it’s still a tie hockey game, so we talked about we just need 20 minutes. We’ve got to raise our level for 20 minutes.’”
Vegas forward Reilly Smith chalked it up to the breaks of the game.
“On the bench, we try to stay positive and maintain the idea that we’re going to stay patient and our opportunities are going to keep on coming and we’re just going to wait for the right bounces,” said Smith.
“It just seemed like we weren’t able to find any of those bounces last game.”
Markstrom started every playoff game prior to Tuesday, playing 14 games in 29 days. The NHL is not releasing injury information or status. Green declined to discuss who will start Game 6.
Tuesday wasn’t the first time during these playoffs that a Canucks’ goaltender has resembled a one-dimensional smiling duck inching from left to right in a carnival shooting gallery.
Vegas is averaging almost 38 shots a night through five games compared with 26 for Vancouver. In Game 2, the Canuck skaters stepped up and blocked 40 shots in front of Markstrom to preserve a 5-2 win. On Tuesday, not so much. They blocked 22.
Shot paucity is also a Canuck playoff theme.
Through 15 games they have outshot their opponent only twice — both times against the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round.
In the playoffs proper, through six games against St. Louis in the first round and now five against Vegas, they have been outshot 418-298.
When it comes to shooting attempts, taking into account missed and blocked shots, that disparity widens to 821 to 594.
Myers said the key to stopping shots in their own end will be decided 200 feet away Thursday.
“If we can get on them quicker, create some more stalls in their D-zone, we’ll have the puck more and that will eliminate a lot of the defending that we were doing,” he said.
Vegas is known for playing a heavy game, and through the first 11 post-season games in 2020, win or lose, had always outhit their opponent. But in the last two games Vancouver has outhit Vegas by a combined 85-70.
Vegas defenceman Brayden McNabb, one of the three big Golden Knight hitters (along with William Carrier and Ryan Reaves), reminded reporters of the double-edged nature of that particular metric.
“Playoffs in general you want to play a heavier game and finish all your checks,” said McNabb. “But last game we had the puck a lot, so it’s a little bit harder to get the hits when you have the puck.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published September 2, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press