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IWTG: Pettersson and Toffoli’s 3-point nights, Markstrom’s 38 saves carry Canucks to Game 2 victory over Vegas

Canucks captain Bo Horvat chipped in two goals to take the playoff goalscoring lead.
graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The Canucks paid a pretty price for Tyler Toffoli — a pending unrestricted free agent — sending their top prospect at centre, Tyler Madden, a second-round pick, and the cap dump of Tim Schaller to the Los Angeles Kings. He quickly found a home on the top line with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, but only played 10 games before the season came to an abrupt halt.

When the bubblified postseason started, Toffoli played just one game against the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round and struggled. He’s been out ever since with a rumoured high ankle sprain.

For a while, it looked like that’s all the Canucks were going to get out of the trade — 10 very good regular season games and one subpar postseason game — with no guarantee that Toffoli will re-sign in the offseason. Sure, there’s the slight extenuating circumstances of a global pandemic, but it was still pretty disappointing.

That wasn’t the end of Toffoli’s playoffs, however, and the Canucks have to be thanking every hockey god in the pantheon that it wasn’t. 

Toffoli returned to action in Game 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights and, just nine seconds into his first shift of the game, opened the scoring on a brilliant play by Pettersson. Toffoli and Pettersson instantly recaptured their chemistry from the regular season, hooking up on two more goals.

It was a monstrous game for the pair, particularly after Pettersson was completely shut down in Game 1. Even though it was clear something needed to change for Game 2, it was a bold move by head coach Travis Green to send Toffoli, who surely isn’t at 100%, into such a difficult matchup alongside Pettersson.

It’s a bold move that paid off in spades. Along with Tanner Pearson, Toffoli and Pettersson formed the Canucks’ best line in Game 2 and they made the biggest difference, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play, compared to Game 1. Considering they contributed to three goals and the Canucks won by three, that seems pretty significant.

Of course, it helps when your goaltender makes 38 saves on 40 shots, but at this point the Canucks and their fans have just come to expect that excellence out of Jacob Markstrom. Just as you’ve come to expect excellence — or at least a couple off-the-wall similes and funny gifs — when I write about how I watched this game.

  • The Golden Knights were feeling all of their oats in Game 1, taunting and chirping the Canucks all game, including some literally childish digs at the Canucks’ two youngest players, calling Pettersson “little squirt” and repeatedly referring to Quinn Hughes as “the water boy.” They were a whole lot quieter without the lead in Game 2.
  • Pettersson’s dominant game after being fiercely chirped in Game 1 had some fans comparing Pettersson to Michael Jordan, who was notorious for taking personal offence at perceived slights and using that as fuel. Of course, this isn’t the first time Pettersson has been compared to Jordan: Wayne Gretzky, of all people, made the comparison to Jordan, though it was in reference to him being a franchise player despite not being a first overall pick.
  • Pettersson, of course, is nowhere near as big a jerk on the ice as Jordan was on the court. In fact, Pettersson is the consummate gentleman on the ice. To whit, he accidentally stole Alec Martinez’s glove in a third-period collision and, instead of tossing it away like some players might, he quickly tossed it back to Martinez. He’s nice on the ice in multiple ways.
  • As for the chirping, Green was dismissive. “I don’t think it has a bearing on the game one way or the other,” he said. Bo Horvat provided a different perspective: “It was a lot quieter over there and we’re going to try to keep it that way.”
  • It didn’t take long for the Canucks to quiet the Vegas bench. Just 1:29 into the first period, Pettersson drove wide around Shea Theodore down the left wing and cut behind the net. Anticipating a wraparound, goaltender Robin Lehner hugged the post and Martinez left his man, Toffoli, to play Pettersson. Instead, Pettersson threw it across the crease to Toffoli, gifting him a wide open net as a return-to-play present.
  • Toffoli did his best to return the favour to Pettersson, springing him on a breakaway a few minutes later, but Pettersson’s couldn’t quite tuck the puck five-hole on Lehner with a backhand deke. Perhaps Pettersson was just prepping Lehner for later, when he’d fake a move to the backhand, but we’ll get to that.
  • It was a fantastic first period for the Canucks, as they carried the play for the bulk of the opening frame, drawing a couple penalties along the way, a key to their game. They arguably spent more time in the offensive zone in the first period than they did in all of Game 1.
  • The Canucks struck quickly on their first power play, immediately showed that they learned from the Vegas penalty kill, which was focussed on taking away the top of the zone and not allowing Hughes to handle the puck. Instead, Pettersson controlled off the faceoff and immediately moved the puck down low to Toffoli, who wasted no time finding Horvat in the slot. Horvat went upstairs faster than Rocky Balboa, firing the one-timer over Lehner’s glove.
  • You can see how the Canucks adapted to the high pressure from the Golden Knights’ penalty kill: Horvat supported up high, providing another short passing option for Hughes. That created a quick triangle game between him, Hughes, and J.T. Miller, which allowed them to move the puck down low and then back up high to create a point shot from Hughes with traffic, looking for a tip.
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  • The second period was night and day from the first. The Golden Knights pushed back hard, with 50 shot attempts in all situations compared to just 11 for the Canucks. That meant lots of shots to block and save: the Canucks’ skaters blocked 19 shots in the second period alone, while Markstrom made 21 saves on the 22 shots that actually reached the net. By the end of the game, the Canucks blocked 40 shots, a franchise record. Like an experienced theatre director, their blocking told the story.
  • Markstrom was the true hero of the hour, however, keeping the Canucks in the lead despite the onslaught. Arguably his best save of the game came a minute in, as Shea Theodore got to walk right down the middle of the ice on the power play after a failed clearing attempt. Theodore’s deceptive release had Markstrom pulled in two directions at once, but Markstrom still got his elbow up like Pavel Bure on Shane Churla, sending the puck out of play.
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  • Unfortunately, Markstrom didn’t have much of a chance on the lone Vegas goal of the second period. A loft pass from Theodore landed perfectly in front of Nicolas Roy for a partial break, and he quickly pulled up and dropped the puck to Alex Tuch, who one-timed the rolling puck for an impossible-to-read shot.
  • Pettersson completely killed the Golden Knights’ momentum, however, with a late goal. Off a faceoff win by Pettersson, Toffoli rotated with Alex Edler at the top of the zone, forcing the Golden Knights to likewise rotate their coverage. William Karlsson blew his read, allowing Pettersson to walk alone into the slot, where Edler found him with a lovely pass. Pettersson faked hard to the backhand then deked to the forehand to beat Lehner, completing the deke he started on the breakaway in the first period. Pettersson plays the long game.
  • The Canucks further crushed the spirits of the Golden Knights with a quick goal in the third period to take a 4-1 lead. With Miller pursuing the puck along the boards, all five Vegas skaters inexplicably came up high in the zone, leaving Brock Boeser and Horvat all alone in front. Miller got the puck to Edler at the point and he chopped it towards the net, where Boeser made a brilliant spinning backhand pass to Horvat on the bouncing puck for the easy finish.
  • PITB contributor Will Graham noted on Twitter that the Golden Knights formed a flying-L shape on Horvat’s goal, to which a Canucks fan had a perfect reply.
  • You could tell Toffoli was brimming with confidence because he tried a cheeky between-the-legs move on a third period power play. Considering Toffoli wasn’t able to skate for the bulk of the time he was out, he looked surprisingly comfortable.
  • The Golden Knights had to be frustrated to be down by three goals in the third period after so easily cruising to victory in Game 1, and they started throwing the body around more liberally. Of course, enthusiasm does not always result in precision, as demonstrated by Zach Whitecloud, who threw his body right over the boards and into his own bench when Jay Beagle dodged his attempted hit with a little Savardian spin.
  • Late in the game, the Golden Knights pulled Lehner for the extra attacker, hoping for a miraculous comeback, but it was not to be. They got one power play goal with a 6-on-4 advantage, with Pacioretty drilling a one-timer past a screened Markstrom, but the Canucks replied with an empty net goal from Tanner Pearson to seal the victory.
  • Pettersson’s three points have him second in the NHL behind Nathan MacKinnon in playoff scoring with 16 points, while Horvat’s two goals put him in sole possession of first in the NHL in goals with 8. Jacob Markstrom’s .925 save percentage may not lead the league, but he has made more saves than anyone else: 392. The next highest is 305.
  • With the series tied 1-1, the ball’s back in Vegas’s court to see how they respond. If Game 1 had them thinking this series would be a cakewalk, Game 2 should have disabused them of that notion, so the Canucks can expect the Golden Knights to come out strong in Game 3.