Is this what it looks like when a Stanley Cup contender plays a Stanley Cup pretender? Or is that reading too much into just one game?
If Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights was a test for the Vancouver Canucks, then they apparently didn’t study anywhere near enough. It’s not like this was a pop quiz that caught them off-guard — they knew going in that the Golden Knights were going to be one of their toughest match-ups of the season so far.
The Golden Knights, hungry after losing three straight as well as five of their last six games, were all over the Canucks like gold leaf on a tacky billionaire’s home. Jack Eichel was particularly dominant, owning every match-up the Canucks threw at him. Shots on goal were 13-to-2 for Vegas when Eichel was on the ice at 5-on-5.
Meanwhile, the Canucks looked lethargic, frequently getting caught flat-footed in the defensive zone. The much-ballyhooed system and structure that helped the Canucks to one of the lowest rates of goals against in the NHL seemed to have temporarily vacated the minds of the players.
By the end of the game, the Golden Knights out-shot the Canucks 44-to-22. It wasn’t just that they beat the Canucks — they outclassed them.
“They’ve got a really good team, they won the Cup for a reason, and we’re trying to be a good team,” said Quinn Hughes. “They just played better tonight. We’re lucky we get to play them three more times.”
When asked if this game was a measuring stick for the Canucks, Hughes immediately agreed.
“Yeah, of course it’s a measuring stick game,” said Hughes. “They’re first in the division, they were best in the league last year…They were better than us tonight and we’ve got the next 55-60 games to measure ourselves against the rest of the league.”
For one night, at least, the Canucks didn’t measure up. But J.T. Miller suggested it hasn't been just one night.
“It’s just will and determination — things that are totally in our control,” said Miller. “When we’re playing well, we do them, but right now we tend to do it every once in a while or every other night and the results are showing it.”
There’s no need to panic, of course. The Canucks were playing for first place in the Western Conference and still have a 15-8-1 record. But the Golden Knights just showed them that they still have some work to do if they want to be legitimate contenders.
I also had some work do after this game. I had to write about how I watched this game.
- J.T. Miller took personal responsibility for the Canucks’ slow start to the game, as he and his linemates fell short against the Golden Knights’ top line. He was on the ice for both of the Golden Knights’ first-period goals and felt he didn’t do enough on either one. Who am I to disagree?
- “They outplayed us in the first period and that’s on me,” said Miller. “I played a little slow in the first period and they were ready to play. They were desperate. They got their goals out of hard work and outworked us and that’s on me.”
- The opening goal was a hot mess, as the five-man unit of Miller, Brock Boeser, Phil Di Giuseppe, Quinn Hughes, and Filip Hronek stood and watched as the Golden Knights peppered Thatcher Demko with five-alarm scoring chances. It bore a resemblance to the “last puck” drill at the end of warm-ups where everyone tries to score with no one defending.
- To be fair, Hronek didn’t stand still. Unfortunately, when he moved, it was away from the front of the net where all the danger was in order to chase the puck below the goal line, darting behind Demko to do so, bumping him and knocking him off balance in the process. Finally Ivan Barbashev, surrounded by Canucks but checked by none of them, put the puck between Demko’s legs, which was easier to do because Demko had lost his stick. It was messier than Mimi Imfurst.
- “Nobody covered anybody,” said Miller, who was standing at the side of the net, not checking anyone. “I might as well have not even been there, just standing there.”
- Quinn Hughes gave the Canucks a chance to shift the momentum after the goal with a shifty move in the defensive zone to draw a tripping penalty on Brett Howden and Miller almost made up for his sleepy start with a power move for the Canucks’ best chance of the period. Unfortunately, like Garven Dreis’s shot at the Death Star's exhaust port, Miller’s shot didn’t go in — it just impacted on the surface.
- The Golden Knights’ second goal was a weird, broken play but it only became a goal because of lackadaisical defending. Take your pick of mistake-makers: Miller whiffed on a check on Mark Stone; Boeser backchecked hard to prevent a 3-on-2 but then inexplicably left Jack Eichel wide open down low; Tyler Myers waved at the puck instead of taking the body. Whoever is most to blame, the end result was Eichel at the backdoor with an open net.
- “The first two goals, our coverage wasn’t good,” said Tocchet. “I mean, it was really bad.”
- The Canucks almost went into the first intermission down 3-0, as Demko gave the puck away to Mark Stone right in front of an open net with 13 seconds left in the period. Fortunately, Demko recovered his composure in time to swat the puck away like he was Aunt May keeping Norman Osborn out of the candied yams.
- Not every Canuck was bad in this game. Conor Garland was the Canucks’ best player, as he was buzzing around the offensive zone all game, slipping checks like he was Frank Abagnale Jr. He set up Dakota Joshua with a fantastic chance midway through the second period but Adin Hill robbed him at the side of the net.
- Just when the Canucks were starting to shift the momentum their way, Tyler Myers took a momentum-killing penalty. The PK wasn’t as effective at killing the penalty as Myers was at killing the momentum: Nils Åman and Teddy Blueger got caught playing too high, leaving a 3-on-2 down low. With Ian Cole backing away, William Karlsson had all day and all of the night to pick his spot on Demko to make it 3-0.
- "We were just too high," said Tocchet. "We got a little too antsy and that opened up the low play...That was a tough one because I don't think [Vegas] had a chance for the first 12 minutes of that second...Their first chance was that goal. So, that kind of sucks. We could have killed that, maybe got a goal, maybe you get some guys energized. But that goal kind of deflated us."
- I’ve been hard on Noah Juulsen in this column and he had another brutal turnover in the first period of this game but he also had a shockingly brilliant foray into the offensive zone near the end of the second period. He dashed through the neutral zone, banked the puck off the boards to himself to slip a check, then centred for Joshua, nearly producing a goal out of absolutely nothing.
- Any hope of a comeback was quickly quashed when the Golden Knights extended the lead to 4-0 just 16 seconds into the third period. It was the kind of lucky goal that teams get when they’re dominating a game, as Alex Pietrangelo’s point shot was saved by Demko but then hit Brett Howden and went in.
- Rick Tocchet mixed up the lines in the third, putting Sam Lafferty and Nils Höglander with Elias Pettersson and moving Andrei Kuzmenko to J.T. Miller’s wing with Brock Boeser. Tocchet liked what he got out of Kuzmenko as a result.
- “His third period was the best I’ve seen this year,” said Tocchet. “Maybe Kuzy playing with a guy that plays north, maybe that’ll help him. Maybe we’ll see if we can keep them together…If you watch his shifts in the third he was going A-to-B. Like, he wasn't zigzagging and backwards skating defending, he was going forward.”
- Kuzmenko also scored a goal, which helped make an impression. Boeser chipped a puck free from a neutral zone board battle and Kuzmenko tipped the puck ahead to Miller to create a 2-on-1. Miller returned the puck to Kuzmenko and he fired it past Logan Thompson, who had come into the game to replace Adin Hill, who left the game as a precaution with a lower-body injury.
- “When you have a four-goal lead, you tend to sit back,” said Miller. “We’re not going to pride ourselves on having a couple of looks because the other team’s playing with a four-goal lead.”
- “It doesn’t matter if I score or don’t score,” said Kuzmenko, “because if it’s 4-1 or 4-0, it doesn’t matter. For me, [scoring a goal] doesn’t matter if my scores don’t help the team…Maybe if the score’s 1-0 and I score — yes, it’s a good score for a comeback, but 4-1?”
- Rick Tocchet gave some interesting insight on what he thinks the Canucks can take from the Golden Knights, saying he wants to see more “double drive” from his team. When I asked what that referred to, he said it’s when a puck carrier on the wing has two forwards with him and one will drive the middle lane, while the other winger will simultaneously drive the outside lane, putting pressure on the defence and allowing a fourth player — typically a defenceman — to follow up as the trailer.
- “I find too many times this year, we have some forwards where the other guy [ie. the third forward on the rush] stays back,” said Tocchet. “That’s why you’ll see sometimes we try to pass it through the middle and in a structured environment, it’s tough…If you double drive and they have to take those guys, who’s late is the fourth man. You saw Vegas, a lot of times, they hit their fourth guy coming in because they did the double drive.”