This series is David vs Goliath, and Elias Pettersson is gamely standing in front of the behemoth, spinning his sling with five smooth stones in a pouch at his side.
The Golden Knights, clad in armor, were the towering favourites heading into the series. They’re just two years removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and they won the Pacific Division during the regular season. The playoffs have been no different, as they went 3-0 in the round robin to get first seed in the Western Conference, then ran roughshod over the Chicago Blackhawks, dispatching them in five games.
The Golden Knights even taunt like Goliath did. Goliath’s roast of David — “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” — is about equivalent to the grade-school insults the Golden Knights have tossed at the Canucks all series.
In the Bible story, of course, David triumphs, surprising Goliath with a stone to the forehead. Clearly, Goliath should have researched and realized that, like Pettersson’s slap shot, sling stones can reach speeds of around 100 mph.
For the Canucks, however, their underdog story went even further under on Sunday in Game 5.
They gave themselves a chance, scoring two goals in the second period to take a one-goal lead into the final frame. Then everything fell apart.
“We put ourselves in a hell of a spot to win a hockey game and get right back in the series,” said J.T. Miller, “That’s not the third period I think we wanted. We had some good looks...I mean, that’s a dream spot to be in, in the playoffs to tie a series 2-to-2, to be up by one going into the third, and they had too many good looks.”
The Golden Knights had more good looks at the net than David had of Bathsheba, and not just in the third period. By the end of the game, the Golden Knights out-chanced the Canucks 31-to-13 at 5-on-5. As much as the Canucks capitalized on their chances and gave themselves a chance to win, they simply gave up too many chances to Vegas and, when it comes to Vegas, chance is in their favour.
I saw Pettersson fling a stone directly into the Golden Knights’ forehead, but unfortunately the Golden Knights were wearing a helmet at the time, when I watched this game.
- At times it literally did seem like it was Pettersson vs the Golden Knights, as also observed by The Athletic’s Harman Dayal. Pettersson played over 20 minutes, including 3:31 of the final five minutes of the game. He had a team-high five shots on goal, scoring one beautiful goal and getting absolutely robbed on two other glorious chances.
- One of those chances was a backhand on a partial breakaway, that Fleury stopped by staying high instead of dropping low, but the biggest robbery came in the second period, when Fleury snagged a glorious chance from the slot with his glove.
- Pettersson wasn’t entirely alone, of course, and Quinn Hughes, in particular, stepped up his game as it progressed, finishing with a two-point night. Green was effusive about both their games: “Outstanding. Both these young guys, they just don’t quit, they keep getting better. I thought that was Quinn’s best game of the series and Petey’s been solid right from the start.”
- This wasn’t Jacob Markstrom’s finest performance, as he allowed five goals on 33 shots for an .848 save percentage, his worst of the postseason. What was odd is that he was making the five-alarm saves on great scoring chances, but shots from distance seemed to find a way through him like a sword stabbed through his back.
- Markstrom was visibly frustrated with himself on a couple of the goals that got by him, at one point lifting his fists like antennas to heaven in lament. He looked off all game, as observed by the NHL’s Kevin Woodley, who noted Markstrom’s uncharacteristic mistakes, raising the point that back-to-back games could be to blame.
- Despite the back-to-back games, there was no chance that anyone other than Markstrom was going to get the start in a do-or-die game the Canucks badly needed to win. At the other end of the ice, the Golden Knights turned to their backup, who just happens to be a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, who, with Sunday’s win, moved past Ken Dryden into sixth all-time in playoff victories. That’s a nice luxury to have.
- Perhaps fatigue, either mental or physical, played a factor for Markstrom, but he would never admit that. When asked whether the back-to-backs affected him on the goals he clearly wanted back, Markstrom was his usual abrupt self after a loss. “I felt great,” he said. “There’s about five [goals] I would like to have back.”
- On the opening goal, Markstrom simply didn’t react quickly enough to Max Pacioretty’s release, and his ever-so-slightly delayed drop into his butterfly was enough for the puck to squeak under his left pad. It was a shot that Tyler Motte would have liked to block, but he got caught down low blocking a passing lane to the sideboards, where Pacioretty no longer was. Pacioretty’s rotation to the top of the zone gave him the space he needed to release that shot.
- The Canucks responded on a power play of their own, thanks to a pair of patient plays by Pettersson and J.T. Miller. On the left side, Miller held onto the puck, waiting for William Karlsson to move his stick out of the passing lane to Pettersson. As soon as Karlsson shifted his stick towards Bo Horvat at the left faceoff circle, Miller found Pettersson at the right faceoff circle. Pettersson paused for a plethora of picoseconds as Brayden McNabb went to one knee for a shot block, then got back up. That gave Pettersson enough space to pick the top corner like he had an inverted triangle afro.
- Vegas regained the lead two minutes later, scoring on a 3-on-2 sparked by a controversial hit by Ryan Reaves on Hughes. Green was immediately vocal on the bench about the hit, starting a brief verbal sparring match with Reaves.
- “Originally, when I saw it, I thought it was a penalty for sure,” said Green. “You could probably see my displeasure… After I watched it again in slo-mo, did I think it was a penalty? It could’ve been a penalty, for sure, but I can also see their side of it as well and it’s not an easy job for the refs.”
- Horvat tied the game with his playoff-leading ninth goal. He and Miller got in deep, freeing up the puck for Jake Virtanen, who fed Alex Edler at the point. Miller tipped Edler’s point shot right to Horvat at the side of the net, who directed it behind Fleury. As Fleury stretched back in desperation, he inadvertently kicked the puck into his own net, which is generally frowned upon for a goaltender.
- With the score tied at two, Markstrom and Fleury exchanged fantastic saves until Hughes made some magic on the power play. He came flying through the neutral zone and played a give-and-go with Miller, creating a ton of space down the left side before finding Tyler Toffoli in the slot with a slick backhand feed. Toffoli went over the shoulder like Willie Mays to take the lead.
- That was also Miller's third assist of the night after just one point in his last four games. Miller hasn't quite seemed like himself, leading to speculation that he's playing through an injury, but he found a way to have a big night at a crucial time.
- Unfortunately, the Canucks couldn’t extend the lead, despite a couple gifted power plays on a blown high sticking call — Troy Stecher was hit by Edler’s stick — and a goaltender interference penalty when Markstrom was well out of his crease. These were two golden opportunities to take a two-goal lead into the third instead of just a one-goal lead — opportunities, thanks to the fickleness of playoff officiating, they were unlikely to get again.
- “Every power play you get is a good opportunity,” said Pettersson. “I don’t know if we were a bit sloppy with the puck. We would like to have those power plays back and maybe go up a two-goal lead for the third period, but it is what it is. You’ve got to learn from it.”
- Tyler Myers returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury in Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues. Perhaps it should have been a sign that he was going to be a bit tentative in his return when his first touch of the puck was a giveaway in the neutral zone and his second was a giveaway in the defensive zone.
- Myers appeared to be deployed in a direct matchup with Alex Tuch to counter his size and speed and it didn’t look like a bad idea: Myers could clearly skate with Tuch and match him physically. By the end of the game, though, the Canucks were out-chanced 15-to-3 with Myers on the ice at 5-on-5.
- Early in the third, Myers and his partner Oscar Fantenberg got stuck on the ice for a long shift, much of it in the defensive zone with the fourth line, with Myers looking completely gassed after the 1:49 shift. It wasn’t his fault Nate Schmidt’s point shot went right through Markstrom, but any time you get stuck in the defensive zone as long as they did, you’re asking for trouble.
- The Canucks pushed back, with some significant zone time culminating in one of their best chances of the game: a point blank chance for Virtanen set up by Horvat. And Virtanen didn’t even hit the net. 16 seconds later, the Golden Knights got a 3-on-2 rush and a backdoor pass went off Pacioretty’s stick and in. It felt like a turning point: a blown opportunity at one end and a lucky bounce at the other.
- I feel for Myers, who clearly isn’t at 100% and was immediately given heavy minutes, playing 21:14. By the third period, he didn’t seem to have much left in the tank. At least, that’s my only explanation for him standing casually in front of the net, watching the puck, instead of clearing Karlsson out of the crease before he got a tap-in goal.
- For 40 minutes, this was the type of bounceback game the Canucks wanted after a shutout loss. They got to the middle of the ice to create quality scoring chances, drew penalties, and battled hard against a deeper and stronger team. They were outplayed, but still managed to get a lead thanks to their power play. But the third period got away from them and they couldn’t reel it back in. Now they’re Link in the boss room of a dungeon with just half a heart remaining and no fairies in bottles in their inventory. One more loss and it’s game over.