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I Watched This Game: Pettersson exudes superstar energy in Canucks win over Golden Knights

Pettersson out-shone the golden helmets of the Golden Knights with a four-point night for the Canucks.
The Vancouver Canucks played spoiler on Wednesday night, running roughshod over the Vegas Golden Knights thanks to Elias Pettersson's four-point performance.

“We don’t have the superstar.”

That was Patrik Allvin, the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, talking about his team in a wide-ranging interview with Postmedia’s Patrick Johnston. It’s a stark statement about the state of the Canucks.

For fans of the Canucks, it can be easy to get enamoured with the players on the roster but management needs to be much more clearsighted. Allvin has no illusions about how good his team is and how much work lies ahead of him. That also means work for the players to prove they belong as part of the future Allvin and his management team are building.

“We have some good players here in place,” said Allvin. “I think every single player down there in the room have something to prove. We don’t have the superstar. We’re not a contending team right now. So every single player has something to prove to us. And that’s going to be the mindset moving forward.”

In fairness, “superstar” is a remarkably high bar to clear. How many true superstars are in the NHL? 

Connor McDavid is a superstar. Auston Matthews, too. Nathan MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin all qualify. But then you get into some iffy territory.

Is Jonathan Huberdeau, second in the NHL in scoring, a superstar or just a very good player? What about Leon Draisaitl, Johnny Gaudreau, and Mitch Marner? Kirill Kaprizov has 40 goals — is he a superstar? Artemi Panarin? Matthew Tkachuk? David Pastrnak?

When put in those terms, no, the Canucks don’t have any superstars. 

But they do have a few players with the potential to be superstars.

Thatcher Demko has been incredible this season, with only a few rough patches here or there keeping him from that next-level superstar status. It’s easy to forget that this is Demko’s first full season as a number one goaltender, with last season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. He still has room to grow.

Then there’s Quinn Hughes, who has the potential to be one of the best defencemen in the NHL but is just a step behind the likes of Roman Josi, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, and Adam Fox. He has improved his defensive play this season and added killing penalties to his game. He could blossom into a true superstar in the coming years.

Finally, there’s Elias Pettersson.

At one point, Pettersson was legitimately in the conversation with the likes of McDavid and Matthews, but something went awry over the past two seasons. That potential is still brimming beneath the surface to be a modern-day Pavel Datsyuk who maybe doesn’t score quite as much as the Art Ross winners but has an elite impact on both sides of the puck.

Pettersson wants to be that superstar. You can see it in the perfectionism in his preparation, his hard work at both ends of the rink on the ice, and his brand-building efforts off the ice. He wants to win, badly.  

Of course, for much of this season, Pettersson not only didn’t look like a superstar, he didn’t look like a first-line forward. Whether it was because he switched to a different stick or lingering effects from his wrist injury, Pettersson struggled to start the year and had just 10 points in his first 22 games. 

Since the All-Star Break at the beginning of February, Pettersson has been a new man. In those 23 games, he has 13 goals and 29 points — a 46-goal, 103-point pace if he could maintain it over a full 82-game season. On top of that, he’s also become one of the Canucks’ best penalty killers, a role that he probably should have been in for several seasons by now.

There’s a path, then, for Pettersson to become exactly the superstar that Allvin says the Canucks are lacking. He’s definitely not there yet and has a lot to prove but he’s beginning to show the new management team what he’s capable of.

On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Pettersson played like a superstar, even if he hasn’t quite earned that label yet. His four-point performance made the Golden Knights look more like Monty Python’s Black Knight when I watched this game.

  • This was a significantly better first period than what the Canucks managed on Sunday at home against the Golden Knights — or most of the season, really — but the Golden Knights still managed to get the opening goal. It’s a shame too because the play started with another entry in the save-of-the-season file folder for Thatcher Demko, which, at this point, is full to bursting. 
  • Chandler Stephenson got loose down low and was able to send a centring pass to Jack Eichel in front for a point-blank chance. Demko got just enough of the puck with his elbow to keep it out, but the puck was still spinning like Blood, Sweat, & Tears’ proverbial wheel towards the goal line. That’s when Demko went into desperation mode, dropping his stick and reaching back with his blocker to pull the puck off the goal line while Eichel already had his arms in the air to celebrate the goal.
  • Eichel didn’t stop playing after the save, however, even though it seemed like several Canucks did. Juho Lammikko was alert and blocked a follow-up chance by Stephenson but the puck skittered off his knee to Eichel, who was left unchecked by Alex Chiasson and Brad Hunt, who were both caught puck-watching and watched said puck get shot into the open net with Demko down and out.
  • Pettersson went to work after the goal and drew a penalty with a shifty change in direction along the boards. On the power play, Chiasson won a race to a loose puck down low and poked it to Pettersson, who fed Oliver Ekman-Larsson at the point. Robin Lehner couldn’t hang onto his point shot and the puck popped out for Bo Horvat to swat into the net.
  • 17 seconds later, Brad Richardson gave the Canucks the lead with his first goal for the Canucks since December 22, 2014. As Richardson pressured on the forecheck, Conor Garland cut off a clearing attempt along the boards. The puck came to Richardson and he centred for Jason Dickinson, who was unable to maneuver around Zach Whitecloud. It worked out  — the puck went off Whitecloud’s skate right back to Richardson, who slipped the puck five-hole on Lehner as the goaltender tried to stretch back against the grain.
  • When he’s playing with Richardson and Dickinson, Garland really should have to go by Garlandson for consistency.
  • The next moment involving Garland can’t be treated so flippantly. While making a play on the puck, he ran headfirst into Ben Hutton’s elbow and seemed dazed as he got to his feet and made his way slowly to the bench.
  • That’s the exact type of play that should be immediately flagged by the NHL’s concussion spotters. It wasn’t a penalty — Hutton didn’t mean to hit Garland in the head — but it still had all the earmarks of a potential concussion. Instead of going to a quiet room under the concussion protocol and undergoing testing, Garland didn’t miss a shift. 
  • Maybe Garland is okay and escaped this collision without a brain injury. But maybe concussion symptoms will surface later this week, as they can take hours or even days to appear. The whole purpose of concussion spotters and the concussion protocol is to take that decision out of the hands of the player, who may feel fine in the moment and not even realize he’s suffered a concussion. This is yet another example of how the NHL still doesn’t take concussions seriously enough.
  • The Canucks’ top line of Pettersson with J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson extended the lead in the second period. Pearson won a race and a battle in the defensive zone and broke out in transition, shoveling the puck ahead to Miller, who swung it cross-ice to Pettersson. As Miller drove the net, Pearson drifted behind him into the high slot, where Pettersson found him with a superb backhand pass for the finish.
  • “Superb” is just one description for that pass, of course. Pearson went with, “What a f***ing pass,” which is also accurate. 
  • Pettersson wasn’t done. Later in the second period, he neatly kicked the puck off the boards for Miller to gain the Vegas zone, then sneakily shook free of Eichel to get more wide open than the Dixie Chicks’ proverbial spaces in front of the net. Ekman-Larsson took a drop pass from Miller and centred to Pettersson for the tap-in. 
  • If the Golden Knights had any dreams of a third-period comeback, Pettersson erased them a minute in. First, he drew another penalty with another shifty play behind the Vegas net then showed off his hand-eye coordination by knocking down an Alec Martinez clearing attempt after the ensuing faceoff. The puck came to Chiasson alone in front and he made up for his mistake on the Eichel goal by sending a spinning pass back to Pettersson for the open net.
  • This was such a complete game for Pettersson. It wasn’t just the points, but also the drawn penalties, the strong puck possession, and the attention to detail defensively. I want to highlight two plays he made on a third-period penalty kill. First, there was this great read on a drop pass in the Vegas zone that gave him a shorthanded chance at a hattrick goal that Lehner turned aside.
  • That’s a very noticeable play. The second is a little more subtle. In the defensive zone, he tracks his man at the point and reads exactly when Dylan Coghlan is going to pass the puck and exactly where it’s going. He darts his stick out at just the right moment, deflecting the pass so that it bounces over Mattias Janmark’s stick, allowing Horvat to jump on the loose puck and clear it around the boards and out. 
  • Pettersson’s defensive reads and the skill to act on them are what make him such an effective penalty killer. And he’s only going to get better as he plays more minutes on the penalty kill.
  • Demko had a four-goal lead to work with in the third period, so he didn’t need to be brilliant, but he was anyway. He robbed the Golden Knights so many times that they just became the Knights. They were likely getting flashbacks to Bubble Demko.
  • The Canucks might not be able to make the playoffs but they can play the role of spoiler for the Golden Knights, who sit one point back of the Dallas Stars for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and four points back of the Los Angeles Kings for third in the Pacific Division. As consolation prizes go, it’s not great, but they can at least make history and be part of the reason the Golden Knights miss the playoffs for the first time ever.