EDMONTON – A month ago, when a Vancouver Canucks team rebuilt on young/inexperienced players was tip-toeing into the playoffs for the first time, we’d have said there was no chance they could rebound against a formidable, experienced side like the Vegas Golden Knights.
Heck, we said it just last series when the Canucks blew a 2-0 series lead against the Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues.
Then Vancouver won the next two games to eliminate the Blues, bouncing back as it did after a poor opener in its previous series against the Minnesota Wild.
On paper, nothing looks good Sunday for the Canucks against the Knights, who won 3-0 on Saturday to take a 2-1 series lead and have shut out Vancouver twice in three second-round games.
But then the Canucks are a lot tougher mentally – and more experienced – now than when they arrived in the playoff bubble wide-eyed and hopeful.
“When we’ve asked for a response, we’ve always got one,” coach Travis Green told reporters in a conference call Sunday morning. “I have no worries at all with our group as far as them responding. We’re going to get their best. We’ve always asked for a response and got it. It didn’t surprise me the first series, didn’t surprise me the second series, it didn’t surprise me in Game 2 (of this series). We’re excited to go tonight.”
Green further explained: “It’s a coachable group that you can be honest with. Sometimes we lose and we’re honest with our group that we didn’t play that bad. Sometimes we win and we tell our group that we didn’t play that good. That’s because they can take criticism and they can take compliments.”
“We’re honest with ourselves,” Canucks winger Tyler Motte agreed. “We’re not afraid to look in the mirror and speak the truth to the group. We’re a team that wants to win, wants to compete, especially this time of year. So we’re going to have to have another bounce-back game tonight.”
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If the Canucks go down 3-1 in the series, trying to make up two games against the formidable Knights will be profoundly harder than trying to make up two goals in Game 2.
After exiting an early flurry of Vancouver power plays and scoring chances with a 2-0 lead, Vegas essentially slammed the door on the Canucks defensively over the final 45 minutes, taking away time and space through the neutral zone and playing safe, sound hockey. They rarely gave up a rush chance and fiercely guarded the front of their next.
“That’s our game,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “When we’re hard to play against defensively, we have enough scoring and speed that we’re going to score some goals. We’ve been playing that game pretty consistently since prior to the pause and getting rewarded for that.”
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BOESER NOT BEST
Struggling Canucks winger Brock Boeser has become a lightning rod for criticism among fans – at least those on social media – after going goalless for the ninth time in 10 playoff games since scoring twice in Vancouver’s qualifying-round win against Minnesota.
Including the 12-game goalless streak that ended his regular season, Boeser has scored just three times in his last 25 games.
Saturday’s loss was actually probably his best game in three weeks, as Boeser was the only Canucks skater to finish with positive numbers at even strength in Corsi (16-15), shots (8-6) and expected goals (58.15%). His four shots on goal co-led the Canucks and were the most by Boeser in the playoffs.
But scorers score, and Boeser isn’t.
“First of all, I’m sure he wants to score and he knows we could use a goal here or there from him,” Green said. “I do like his work. He’s skating, he’s trying to get in and cause turnovers.
“There’s a reason guys that find areas to score and come up with goals get paid a lot of money because they do things that sometimes just aren’t teachable. I do know that in playoff hockey, you’ve got to get to the front of the net and sometimes it’s just getting an ugly goal that gets you going. He’s working hard, he’ll find a way. He’s just got to keep shooting the puck and looking to find space when he can, and also go to the hard areas.”
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THE BIGGER PROBLEM
Remarkably, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes was not only the best Canuck over the first two rounds of the playoff tournament but, indisputably, was one of the best players in the league. Naturally, this further raised expectations for the 20-year-old, who has been surpassing projections since his first game last October when Hughes was deployed head-to-head against Connor McDavid in Edmonton.
But the Calder Trophy finalist is struggling against the Knights, who are outshooting and outscoring the Canucks when Hughes is on the ice. The dynamic defenceman just isn’t getting room from Vegas to carry the puck and, since Hughes rarely just dumps it, is getting caught in possession and making turnovers. Not surprisingly, Hughes also looks less confident making plays and trying to beat opponents one-on-one.
The Knights have outscored the Canucks 5-0 at even strength with Hughes on the ice.
“Quinn Hughes is getting the same attention that we’re trying to give all their good players,” DeBoer said. “And that’s just to take away time and space and play them hard but clean, and try to put a lot of pressure on them.
“But when you re-watch the video, he’s such a great player, you still see he’s able to make plays through and in traffic and skate himself out of trouble so often. He’s a special player that has the ability, even with attention and pressure, to make plays.”