The Canucks find themselves in an unfamiliar situation: the brink of elimination. For the first time all playoffs, the Canucks will be playing in an elimination game, their postseason dreams pending on the result of one game.
For a team that’s faced plenty of tests this postseason, this is easily the biggest. Down 3-1 in the series against the Golden Knights, the Canucks need to win three straight games to move on to the third round.
It’s a big ask for a team that wasn’t even expected to get this far in the playoffs this year, but perhaps they can take heart from 2019. Despite their franchise just being a few years old, the Golden Knights have already had an all-time playoff collapse, falling to the San Jose Sharks in 7 games last year after taking a 3-1 series lead.
Can the Canucks do the same thing the Sharks did? It’s a tall task, but it’s one their head coach thinks is completely possible.
“I’m not worried about our group one bit. This talk about talking to your group about facing an elimination game — we’ve just got to win one game tomorrow,” said Green. “Last series, we lost two to St. Louis, everyone thought we were down and out and were going to be done. We were ready to go. I guarantee you, our team’s going to be ready to go tomorrow.
“I’m not looking at it like this is Game 7 tomorrow, we’ve just got to win one game. We win tomorrow, we get to play another one.”
If the Canucks want to play another one, they need to win Game 5. Here are five things they’ll need to do to make that happen.
1 | Relax
This is a tense moment, made even more tense by the quarantine bubble the Canucks find themselves in. As much as the team needs to focus on the playoffs, there’s something to be said for finding a moment away from the game to relax.
Staying loose and relaxed might not be a typical “key to the game,” but it’s essential for the Canucks in such a tense moment.
“You can’t go into this game gripping your stick too tight,” said Canucks captain Bo Horvat on Monday. “You have to love to be in these situations. Embrace it, embrace the moment, and everything’s going to fall into place by itself.”
“The minute you start overthinking things and gripping your stick too tight, that’s when it goes the opposite way,” he added. “For us, it’s just to play relaxed — we know it’s a do or die situation — and just leave it all out there.”
2 | Slow down Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty
The Golden Knights’ top line has been absolutely dominant all series, combining for 7 goals, including 4 from Max Pacioretty alone. More than just the goals, however, the line has been all over the Canucks when it comes to puck possession. When they’re on the ice, the Canucks seem to never leave the defensive zone.
When Mark Stone is on the ice at 5-on-5, shots on goal are 43-to-18 for the Golden Knights. He’s been a monster, but Pacioretty has been nearly as impressive. At the same time, the Canucks can’t discount William Karlsson, who is just a couple seasons removed from a 43-goal season.
So far, the Canucks have had no answer for Stone and his linemates. Just one player has seen the Canucks out-shoot the Golden Knights at 5-on-5 when matched up with Stone: Jake Virtanen, and only just barely. Everyone else has been out-shot, mostly very badly.
The Canucks need to figure out a way to keep the Golden Knights’ top line from dominating in both possession and on the scoresheet.
3 | Get on the power play, while staying out of the box
At even-strength, the Golden Knights have completely outclassed the Canucks. Shots on goal are 120-to-76 for the Golden Knights at 5-on-5, while scoring chances are 112-to-78.
The Canucks’ best hope is to battle the Golden Knights to a stalemate at even-strength, because they’ll be hard pressed to win that battle. After that, special teams can be the difference for the Canucks, as their power play has been superb all playoffs.
The power play hasn’t been quite as good against the Golden Knights as against the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild, but it was 2-for-5 on Sunday and is beginning to look more dangerous. They need to get power play opportunities and take advantage of them to have any chance against the Golden Knights.
There’s just one problem: the Golden Knights power play has been nearly the equal of the Canucks’ this postseason and has been even better in this series, scoring a power play goal in every game of the series so far. The Canucks need to stay disciplined, drawing penalties while staying out of the box themselves.
4 | Beat the aggression with quick puck movement
The Golden Knights use their speed and structure aggressively on the forecheck and in the neutral zone to eliminate breakouts, as well as on the penalty kill to force quick decisions from opposing power plays. That makes them a nightmare for an opposing team’s breakout, as they hem teams in their own end and wear them down on the cycle.
The Canucks’ third pairing has particularly felt the effects of this. Shot attempts are 79-to-37 for the Golden Knights with Oscar Fantenberg on the ice at 5-on-5. That’s perhaps why the Canucks got Tyler Myers back in the lineup as soon as he was able to play instead of waiting until he was closer to 100%, as his puck-moving ability was badly missed.
It’s even affected the Canucks’ best defenceman, Quinn Hughes, who has seen the Canucks get out-shot 46-to-21 at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice and get out-scored 7-to-0.
There’s a downside to such an aggressive forecheck, however. If opposing teams can make quick enough passes to thwart the forecheck, it opens up all sorts of space behind the forecheckers, which can lead to dangerous rush chances.
The Canucks have been able to deal with the Golden Knights’ aggressive penalty kill with quick puck movement and extra support for the puck carrier to provide an additional outlet for pressure. The same template could work with breaking the Golden Knights’ forecheck: more support from a forward down low in the zone to provide a short, quick passing option.
If the Canucks can make that happen, the Golden Knights might even have to back off on their aggressive forecheck, taking away one of their biggest weapons.
5 | Support their goaltender
Jacob Markstrom was not at his best in Game 4, with fatigue possibly setting in on the second half of back-to-back games. It didn’t help, however, that a couple of the goals that got past him were on shots that would normally be blocked by the skaters in front of him.
The opening goal from Sunday’s Game 4 is a case in point. Tyler Motte, who has been a shot-blocking hero all playoffs, got caught out of position on the penalty kill when Pacioretty cycled up high in the zone. Where he’d normally be closer to the shooter and get in the lane to make a block, Motte was instead caught in no man’s land. The puck got past both Motte and Markstrom, who wasn’t able to pick up the shot off the stick.
Markstrom has been the Canucks’ MVP this season, carrying them to the playoffs despite a defence that gives up a lot of Grade A chances, and he’s been just as good in the postseason. No other goaltender has faced as many high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and Markstrom has still come up with save after save to keep the Canucks in games.
Throughout the playoffs, Markstrom has repeatedly credited the skaters in front of him for laying their bodies on the line to block shots. In Game 5, he’ll need them again to lessen his load.