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Breaking down how the Golden Knights have spent so much time in the Canucks’ zone

"I’m never going to criticize a win too harshly, but we’re always going to look to make adjustments," said Travis Green.
Ryan Reaves hits Alex Edler, Jason Franson CP
Ryan Reaves throws a hit on Alex Edler during the Vancouver Canucks' playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights. photo: Jason Franson, CP

The Canucks got the result they wanted out of Tuesday’s Game 5, but it’s not a performance they’d like to repeat.

“We’re never a group that sugarcoats things,” said head coach Travis Green on Wednesday. “That’s not how you improve.”

Here’s the unvarnished — unsugarcoated — truth. The Canucks got their behinds whooped in every way in Game 5, except on the scoreboard. Shots on goal were 43-to-17 for Vegas and high-danger chances were 14-to-4, which just highlights how incredible Thatcher Demko was in the Canucks’s goal.

“I’m never going to criticize a win too harshly, but we’re always going to look to make adjustments,” said Green, then later identified some problem areas. “I thought we weren’t quite skating the way we could and we weren’t great with the puck, and when those two are in our game, it’s usually a recipe for playing in your own zone.”

The disparity in zone time was blatantly obvious in Game 5, but it’s been the story all series. The Golden Knights are masters of hemming opposing teams into the defensive zone. It’s a combination of factors — the cycle, the forecheck, structure in the neutral zone — that keeps the puck out of their own end of the ice.

That’s the Golden Knights’ biggest strength and played a major role in their success all season. They led the NHL in corsi percentage — shot attempts for and against at 5-on-5 — during the regular season, a sign that they consistently keep the puck in the offensive zone. That’s continued into the postseason, where they have a dominant 59.44% corsi, best in the NHL by a significant margin.

How do the Golden Knights do it and what can the Canucks do to combat this puck possession nightmare?

I took a look at one particular shift — one that lasted 2:23 for Tyler Myers in Game 5 — to look at how the Golden Knights create so much time in the offensive zone. It’s not any one thing that results in this extended shift in the Canucks’ end of the ice and no one player is solely to blame. Part of it is mistakes on the part of the Canucks, but it’s also a credit to just how good the Golden Knights are.

This also isn’t meant to be a slight on any of the Canucks that show up in the clips below, as their struggles are similar to struggles by other Canucks on other shifts. It just happens to be a particularly illustrative shift.

Puck Battles

It often starts with a lost puck battle or two. Here, it’s Oscar Fantenberg, who has an opportunity to win a puck away from Max Pacioretty after a failed pass, but Pacioretty gets the puck back. 

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The Golden Knights are phenomenal in puck battles along the boards, frequently coming out with the puck in 50/50 situations. That allows them to extend shifts that would otherwise end in that moment. This is one of a few examples on this one shift.

The Cycle

That leads to the cycle down low. Vegas has a dominant cycle game, like the Sedins minus the absurd creativity. 

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In the first half of this shift, it’s the Golden Knights’ top line of Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Pacioretty controlling the puck with impunity along the boards. Their defencemen also frequently creep in to support the cycle — you can see it from Alec Martinez on the left side in this clip — which keeps the defending team in constant motion, creating all sorts of opportunities for mistakes on which the Golden Knights can capitalize.

On the plus side, the Canucks do manage to keep the top line to the outside on this shift, with their one centring pass getting tipped away with no shot. These type of shifts, however, aren’t just about scoring in the moment, but grinding down the opposing team, wearing them out and creating opportunities for your other lines and for yourself in the future.

Breaking the cycle is easier said than done, but comes down to making a great defensive read, anticipating the pass and getting a stick on the puck. That gets harder and harder to do as a shift gets longer and you get more and more fatigued, physically and mentally. More often than not, instead of breaking up a pass, putting a stick in can lead to taking a penalty.

“We defended in our own zone a fair amount last night and that makes you tired, so discipline comes when you’re tired as well,” said Green. “It’s hard not to take penalties when you’re defending and you’re tired.”

Execution with the Puck

Eventually the cycle ended with a failed pass in front, but that’s where a lack of execution with the puck in the defensive zone causes issues.

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Here, Alex Edler has come onto the ice for Oscar Fantenberg and taken a pass from Jay Beagle. Edler has time with the puck here, but his return pass to Beagle is behind the Canucks’ centre.

The Golden Knights immediately attack with numbers: all three forwards jump up into the Canucks’ zone with an aggressive forecheck, forcing Edler to just chip the puck up the boards instead of breaking the puck out with possession. 

From there, the result is predictable: the Golden Knights control the puck with a series of short passes in the neutral zone and fire it back into the Canucks’ zone.

When the Canucks can’t get the puck through the neutral zone and deep into Vegas’s end of the ice, that means Myers can’t get to the bench for a change. He’s stuck on the ice as Vegas pushes back.

A crisper pass to Beagle likely leads to the Canucks at least being able to dump the puck into the Vegas zone and get the change, even if it doesn’t lead to puck possession for the Canucks.

Support the Breakout

The Canucks manage to come up with the puck again after that, but now we end up with another problem: a lack of support for the breakout. Myers sends the puck across to Edler, but he has no one to whom he can pass the puck.

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Jake Virtanen skates up the middle for a breakout pass — nothing wrong with his route there — but Nicolas Roy has his stick in the passing lane. The bigger issue is Beagle, who blows the zone instead of circling down low in the zone to provide a release for Edler. As a result, Edler has no other option but to launch the puck out of the zone and hope Beagle or Tyler Motte can skate onto it.

Counter-attacking with speed and quick puck movement is a way to break down an aggressive forecheck, taking advantage of any space the forecheckers might leave behind them, but that can’t mean blowing the zone when your defencemen need support.

The Canucks need to play fast, but simultaneously can’t have too big a gap between their defencemen and forwards.

“We’re just trying to play fast and get the puck in their zone,” said Quinn Hughes. “The thing is, they clog the middle, so we can’t really skate through it, and the longer we wait to pass, our forwards are stuck at the far blue line, so if we pass it to them then, they’ve got no speed. 

“So, for us, we’re just trying to get it out of our hands quickly so they can get on the forecheck with speed and then it’s the defencemen’s responsibility to get up and gap up and try to support the forecheck. As far as that, I think we can probably do a little bit better of a job, just ‘cause we didn’t have a lot of offensive zone puck time and it’s partly on the forecheck and partly on us trying to get the puck up so the forwards can make plays.”

In other words, if the forwards get too far ahead of the defence, they can’t attack with speed. Simultaneously, if there’s too big a gap when the forwards are on the forecheck, then it’s far too easy for the Golden Knights to break out themselves, as the defencemen aren’t there to cut off the puck.

In this particular case, if Beagle curls down low for a short pass from Edler, he’s able to attack the neutral zone with more speed and should have an easier time gaining the red line himself to dump the puck in, or find Virtanen or Motte with a pass.

When All Else Fails, Defend the Net

From there, the Golden Knights again gained the zone, creating a good scoring chance for Nicholas Roy when Edler lost an edge. The Golden Knights again cycled the puck, this time with the third line of Roy, Nick Cousins, and Alex Tuch. 

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At one point, Beagle and Myers win a puck behind the net, but, perhaps because of fatigue, they’re unable to do anything with it and Beagle immediately gives the puck away to Tuch. Eventually, the tired Myers can only stand hunched over in front of the crease, doing his best to at least protect the front of the net. 

The Canucks deserve credit for two things on this shift: protecting the middle of the ice and avoiding a penalty. Apart from Roy’s chance when Edler lost his footing, the Canucks don’t give up much on this shift despite the pressure and they eventually get the puck out and get a change without giving the Golden Knights a power play.

Play in the Offensive Zone

Far more preferable, of course, would be to avoid an extended stay in the defensive zone in the first place. Myers made it clear on Wednesday: the best way to avoid spending a lot of time in the defensive zone is to keep the puck as far away from it as possible.

“I think a lot of it is they’re a good team at breaking the puck out,” said Myers. “I think we can do a better job at getting stalls and getting pucks back in on our forecheck, which I think is one of our strengths. 

“Whether it’s being a step quicker or whatever it is, I think 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, especially last night for the first 40.”

What’s clear is that it’s not any one thing. Each element plays into the other. If the Canucks can win more puck battles, they’ll prevent the Golden Knights from cycling the puck. After winning puck battles, they need better execution on their own breakouts, which will require support from the forwards. If they can do all that, they’ll avoid getting tired in their own end of the ice and resorting purely to defending the slot.

And, if they can pressure the Golden Knights more effectively on the forecheck and create more puck possession in the offensive zone, they’ll avoid all of these issues entirely. 

The Canucks found a way to win while getting brutally out-shot on Tuesday. Expecting the same result on Thursday in Game 6 is asking for trouble. 

“I’m hoping we play a better game,” said Green. “Especially in playoff hockey, when you find a way to win a game that you probably shouldn’t have, it’s not just luck. It’s compete. It’s buying in as a group. It’s blocking a shot. Obviously, your goalie is part of that, a big part of it. Demmer was great last night. 

“I expect our team to play a better game tomorrow.”