EDMONTON – The Vegas Golden Knights are so deep and strong, with size, speed and firepower throughout their lineup, it’s easy to overlook how well they defend.
The Vancouver Canucks got a reminder on Saturday when they fell behind by a couple of goals early and rarely threatened before losing 3-0 to the Knights, who shut down the neutral zone while opening a 2-1 lead in their Stanley Cup Playoffs series.
It was the second time in three games that goalie Robin Lehner has shut out the Canucks, who had one of the National Hockey League’s top-10 offences during the regular season. Vancouver managed only 14 five-on-five shots Saturday and trying to chase down a two-goal deficit against Vegas felt a little like trying to chase down a freight train.
The Canucks’ best chances were all early, when the team’s three power plays in the first 11 minutes included a 78-second five-on-three.
There is so little margin for error for the Canucks in this series that getting out-goaltended and out-special-teamed creates a gulf between the teams. Vancouver’s marvellous and unexpected playoff run will be a game away from ending if the Canucks don’t execute and finish better on Sunday when the teams play for the second time in 25 hours.
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“I thought we were unlucky to be down 2-0,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “That happens in playoff hockey. I think our team, sometimes when we get down we tend to overpass the puck a little bit. I thought we had a few too many east-west plays in the offensive zone, especially in the second period. I really liked our first period. Skated well, drew some penalties. Give their goalie credit.
“I think we easily could have been up after the first period, but that’s all part of playoff hockey. Sometimes you have a good period but you don’t win it. Sometimes you’re going to play well and it doesn’t go in the net.”
At one stage in the opening 20 minutes, shots were 15-5 for the Canucks while the score was 2-0 for the Knights.
Between those early power plays, when the Canucks tested Lehner nine times but couldn’t get a puck past him, the Knights managed to build its two-goal lead as Alex Tuch and Zach Whitecloud scored on top-corner shots 83 seconds apart, starting at 4:05.
Tuch blew past flat-footed Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn to skate on to Nicolas Roy’s bounce pass, then deftly controlled the puck before burying a rolling forehand over goalie Jacob Markstrom’s left shoulder.
Two shifts later, struggling Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes had the puck bounce away from him along the boards for a defensive-zone turnover. Hughes recovered to prevent an initial scoring chance, but Whitecloud swooped in from the blue line to collect the loose puck and shoot far side as Markstrom was being screened by Chris Tanev, Hughes’ partner.
It looked more like bad luck than a bad play by Hughes, but the 20-year-old struggled again to find or create any room at even-strength against the physical Knights.
When the Canucks eliminated the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues last series, Hughes looked like the best defenceman in the NHL. He hasn’t been the best in any of the games against the Knights, who have stapled the five-foot-10 defenceman more in three games than the Blues managed to tag him in six.
The Knights aren’t letting Hughes skate the puck up ice and at times the rookie looks less confident than he did last week when trying to beat a defender one-on-one.
“He’s a young guy finding his way through another round of the playoffs,” Green said of his franchise player. “I think he’s fine; I’m not worried about him at all. That (Vegas) team can chew up ice and take away time and space. They’ve got a lot of speed on their team. He’s adapting to it. He’s still doing a lot of good things on the power play. I’m not worried about him one bit. He’ll be fine.”
Hughes had two shots on goal in 26:22 of ice time and Vancouver was outshot 8-3 when he was on the ice at five-on-five. It was his best game of the series, but the Canucks need something special from their special player to be able to take down the Knights over seven games.
Also disconcerting for Vancouver was the lack of shots, hits and faceoffs for power forward J.T. Miller, who had only one shot in 23:30 of ice time — second only to Hughes’ time on ice. One of the best faceoff men in the NHL this season, Miller took only three draws, possibly indicating the hand or thumb he hurt blocking a shot early in the playoffs is becoming a bigger hindrance.
He’ll have little time to heal or rest in a playoff schedule further compressed by the two-day, player-driven shutdown this week to focus attention on racism and social justice.
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday morning that he believes the hectic schedule favours the Knights.
“I’ve said from Day 1, I think that’s advantage to us,” DeBoer said. “The tighter the schedule, the more back-to-backs, the more your depth comes into play. And that’s at all positions. I think we welcome that. It tests your depth, it tests your character and we like where we are on those things.”
The Canucks are being tested now.