If this series comes down to an even-strength battle, the Canucks are going to get crushed.
The Golden Knights are an elite team at even strength, thanks to two top lines that could each be a first line in their own right, a difference-making third line, and a fourth line that can bang and crash with the best of them. They boast two elite two-way wingers in Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, one of the league’s most underrated top defencemen in Shea Theodore, and dangerous depth at every position.
At 5-on-5 this season, the Vegas Golden Knights led the entire NHL in shot attempt differential and out-chanced their opponents by a wide margin. They led the NHL in high-danger chances at 5-on-5 and it wasn’t particularly close: they had 726 high-danger chances this season to 695 for the next best team.*
That’s a far cry from the Canucks, who had just 589 high-danger chances at 5-on-5 during the regular season. They were 23rd in the NHL in shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 and were even worse in scoring chances: 28th, ahead of just the Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils.
The Canucks make up for those numbers in a couple key areas. Much like the Jets, they have an elite goaltender in Jacob Markstrom. They have some elite finishing talent that out-scores their paltry scoring chance numbers. But most of all, they have one of the best power plays in the NHL.
Since the Canucks will be hard pressed to match the Golden Knights at even-strength, they have to leverage their ability with the man advantage to even the playing field. In order to do that, however, they'll have to actually draw some penalties to get on the power play in the first place.
During the regular season, the Canucks were one of the best teams in the league at drawing penalties, finishing second behind the Colorado Avalanche in power play opportunities. Combined with their top-end power play, the Canucks led the NHL in goal differential on the power play during the regular season.
The Canucks ability to draw penalties has continued during the postseason, where they lead the playoffs in power play opportunities.
Elias Pettersson leads the way, drawing 7 minor penalties while taking just one himself, but Troy Stecher has also drawn 7 minor penalties and Jake Virtanen has drawn 5. Against both the Minnesota Wild and The St. Louis Blues, the Canucks were able to get a lot of time on the power play.
The Blues tried to use their size to push around the Canucks, but that led to penalty trouble, giving the Canucks 23 power play opportunities in 6 games: nearly four per game. While that seemed like just a fraction of the number of penalties the Blues should have received based on the letter of the law, there’s no denying that the Canucks got plenty of chances to put their power play to work, and they took advantage, scoring 7 goals.
There’s just one problem: the Golden Knights are much more disciplined than the Blues.
The Golden Knights have been shorthanded an average of 2.56 times per game this postseason, lowest amongst teams still in the playoffs. While the Golden Knights finished their checks all game, tallying a whopping 54 hits in Game 1, they were disciplined with their sticks, avoiding the crosschecks, slashes, and high sticks that tripped up the Blues.
Combine that with the way the Golden Knights maintained possession of the puck for the bulk of the game and it’s no surprise they gave the Canucks just one power play.
That gave the Canucks just one opportunity to see the Vegas penalty kill, but it quickly became crystal clear what their strategy would be: take away the top of the zone.
While penalty kills have cheated towards Pettersson all season to take away the threat of his one-timer, the Golden Knights got right to the point — literally — by taking away the passing lane entirely.
The Golden Knights were remarkably aggressive on Quinn Hughes, forcing him to rush passes or try to make a more difficult saucer pass. That led to a couple quick clears for the penalty kill, with Nick Cousins and Chandler Stephenson each blocking a Hughes pass from the point.
They were similarly aggressive against the second power play unit, pressuring Alex Edler at the point, but the veteran defenceman evaded the pressure by making a short pass to Jake Virtanen on the near side instead of trying to force a cross-ice pass. Virtanen made a nice backhand return pass to Edler, which opened up the middle of the ice for a point shot.
While the aggressive penalty kill was effective in Game 1, it also creates holes that the Canucks can exploit. With a penalty killer pulled up high to the point, that opens up passing lanes through the middle of the ice. In addition, if the Canucks can move the puck from high to low and vice versa, that will spread out an aggressive penalty kill significantly: quick puck movement can take over from there.
The Golden Knights didn’t have the strongest penalty kill during the regular season — they were ranked 24th in the NHL at 80.8% — so this should be an area where the Canucks can take advantage.
Of course, that’s predicated on the Canucks actually being able to draw penalties. For that, they’ll need more from players like Pettersson, Virtanen, and Hughes, who have been so effective at drawing penalties in the past.