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IWTG: Canucks get a wake up call from the Golden Knights in Game 1

Golden Knights get goals from five different forwards, while Robin Lehner posts first career playoff shutout.
graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

When watching a hockey game, it’s easy to slip into familiar narratives and let them dictate how you view the game.

For instance, heading into Game 1, one of the dominant narratives was that the Canucks, riding the emotional wave of their victory over the St. Louis Blues just two days earlier, would have the early advantage over the Vegas Golden Knights, who had been sitting around for five days after knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks.

Instead, the Golden Knights came flying out of the gate, dominating the Canucks right from the opening faceoff, and the narrative quickly shifted to the exact opposite. The Canucks were clearly fatigued and of course the well-rested Golden Knights would carry the play. Who could have ever doubted it?

Alex Edler dismissed the idea of fatigue in a hurry.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Edler. “This is just how it is in the playoffs, you usually play every second day and we’re all in good shape, so that’s not an excuse we’re using. We’ve just got to look forward to Game 2 and we’ve got to come out better.”

“Same,” said Markstrom, shortly.

Then there was the narrative pushed by the television broadcast, which locked in on the battle between Ryan Reaves and Antoine Roussel for the entire game. The accolades Reaves received for his hits and agitation — the broadcast was particularly tickled pink by Reaves making chicken noises to Roussel from the bench — made it seem like the result of the game, if not the entire series, pivoted on the performance of the Golden Knights’ fourth-line grinder.

Meanwhile, when Reaves was on the ice, shot attempts were 13-to-6 for the Canucks and he was one of just two Golden Knights skaters that was out-shot when he was on the ice at 5-on-5.

There were many other compelling narratives that better explained the Golden Knights’ 5-0 win: the dominant play of Mark Stone; the swarming and speedy Vegas forecheck; the shutdown work of Shea Theodorre and Alex Martinez on Elias Pettersson; the complete denial of the middle of the ice in the Vegas zone; five different Vegas skaters (none of them from Reaves’ line) contributing a goal.

All of those things had a far larger effect on the outcome of the game, but if you were watching the broadcast, you would think that Reaves won the game for the Golden Knights.

There are exceptions. Kevin Bieksa did a fantastic job during an intermission segment breaking down Stone’s impressive work with his stick to steal pucks, tie up sticks, and tip in goals, but otherwise it was the Ryan Reaves show on Sportsnet.

That’s not to entirely discount the impact Reaves had on the game. His 11 hits were absolutely felt and may have caused the Canucks to move the puck a little faster than they would have liked. His chirping on and off the ice may or may not have gotten under the skin of his opponents, but it probably helped keep the mood on the bench loose and relaxed. And it’s possible that by goading Roussel, Reaves kept the Canucks winger from trying to get under the skin of someone else.

Of course, this is the way the Golden Knights want it. They would much rather people focus all their attention on Reaves while the rest of the team gets to business actually winning the game.

Narratives do matter. The stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves have a real impact on the world. The story that the Canucks are telling themselves about how and why they lost Game 1 will have an effect on how they play Game 2. It’s important, then, that they tell themselves the right story.

I will endeavour to do the same: tell the right story after I watched this game.

  • The Canucks’ best line in this game was Antoine Roussel, Brandon Sutter, and Adam Gaudette, which is great for that trio, but not a good sign for the rest of the team. Gaudette, in particular, had his best game of the playoffs, looking quick and confident with the puck. It helped that they were matched up against the Golden Knights’ fourth line, but the Canucks will take any positives they can get out of this game.
  • The Golden Knights essentially have two first lines, which makes them a nightmare to check. Bo Horvat was victimized on the opening goal as he tried to matchup with the line of Jonathan Marchessault, Paul Stastny, and Reilly Smith, who cycled the puck with impunity until the puck came across to Stastny. Horvat, caught puck-watching, didn’t pick him up, and Stastny tucked the puck in like he had just read it a bedtime story.
  • To the Canucks’ credit, they only allowed the one goal in the first period, but the wheels fell off in the second. It started with a brutal giveaway by Alex Edler on the penalty kill, whiffing on a pass from Chris Tanev. That led to a fire drill and the Canucks were Arnold Schwarzenegger’s class at the beginning of Kindergarten Cop, with Smith eventually banging in a loose puck after a blocked shot by Tanev.
  • Apart from that giveaway, Edler had a strong game, with shot attempts 27-to-18 for the Canucks when he was on the ice 5-on-5. He was more aggressive than we’ve seen so far this postseason, using that aggression to neutralize the advantage of the Golden Knights’ speed, such as when he closed quickly on Nicolas Roy for a big open-ice hit early in the third. That led to a great chance for Roussel, who made up for the lack of fans in the arena with a big fan on Sutter’s backdoor pass.
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  • The biggest issue for the Canucks was simply transitioning the puck up ice. The Golden Knights were relentless in their pressure in the offensive zone and neutral zone, making life difficult even for Quinn Hughes, who was visibly frustrated at some uncharacteristic mistakes he made under pressure. What he needs is an inspirational poster, perhaps with a cute kitten on it, that says something like, “You need pressure to make a diamond.” He’ll be fine.
  • The Canucks’ best players struggled to create any offence — Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes didn’t get a single shot on goal — but Pettersson still had some great moments that suggested he’ll figure things out. His backhand pass through his legs to Tanev to set up a chance was a highlight of his game. The only issue was Tanev didn’t quite elevate his shot as much as he wanted to.
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  • That’s when things started to get out of hand. Stone tipped in a Nate Schmidt point shot to make it 3-0, then five minutes later Alex Tuch raced onto a puck lofted into the neutral zone, leaving Tanev, Hughes, and J.T. Miller in his dust, and roofed a quick snap shot over Markstrom’s glove to make it 4-0.
  • It’s easy to look at Tuch and see the player that Jake Virtanen was supposed to be, combining blazing speed with a legitimate power game. Perhaps that’s why I found myself getting frustrated with Virtanen despite a nice move early in the game to create a chance. There were too many times when Virtanen could have thrown a hit or been harder on the forecheck, like we saw so often from the Golden Knights, and he instead pulled up. He’s got to be a guy that finishes checks for the Canucks.
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  • It certainly didn’t help my impressions of Virtanen’s game tonight that he was at fault for the 5-0 goal. Max Pacioretty skated right past Virtanen to the bottom of the faceoff circle to finish off a pass from behind the net, with Virtanen showing no awareness that Pacioretty was even there. All in all, a rough night for Virtanen, particularly after he finished the series against St. Louis so well.
  • Markstrom probably should have been pulled from the game in the second intermission — while he wasn’t to blame for the score, there was no sense keeping him in at that point — but it took the fifth goal for Green to bring in Thatcher Demko. Markstrom is a proud player and probably wanted to stay in for the whole game, but it was good to get Demko a little experience and get Markstrom a little rest.
  • Demko, for his part, was solid in relief, stopping all five shots that came his way, including a superb stop on Tuch in the final minute as the big winger came barrelling down the right wing. While there’s no doubt that Markstrom will start every game this postseason, it’s good to know Demko is dialled in, just in case of an injury. 
  • While I don't think there was anything particularly dirty about the Golden Knights' overall play, this hit from Nick Cousins on Brock Boeser definitely was. After Boeser shot in the puck, Cousins rode Boeser into the boards, looking like he was going to run him into the curved glass at the end of the bench. Boeser spun out of the check, but Cousin latched on, dragging Boeser to the ice while simultaneously falling on him. Boeser arched his back in pain, looking like he tweaked his knee on the play, and skated gingerly to the bench, although he didn't leave the game.
  • In the regular season, there are poor performances that you can effectively crumple up, toss in the trash, and walk away from. In the playoffs, teams don’t have that luxury. “Well, we’re definitely not just going to flush it and move on,” said head coach Travis Green. “We’ll watch the game again, we’ll meet tomorrow with our team like we have, whether we played well or didn’t, analyse our game.”
  • Green has made significant adjustments all playoffs that have worked out very well so far. They found a way to get chances from the middle of the ice against the Blues and solved their forecheck by the end of the series, so the Canucks will have to hope that they can do the same against the Golden Knights.