2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Golden Knights vs. Canucks

Gene Principe and Iain MacIntyre discuss the surprise element of the Vancouver Canucks, the way the depth players are chipping in and how the window opened sooner than people were expecting for this team.

This series brings together two teams at different stages of development, but who we might discover aren’t so far separated from one another.

Two years ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were the league’s biggest surprise when they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their expansion season. A return to the Final in 2019-20 would surprise absolutely no one. No matter which way you study this roster, they’re a formidable opponent.

Offensive stars like Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty headline a deep talent pool of big-game players like Alex Tuch and Reilly Smith, while a lockdown defensive core stifles opponents almost immediately upon entry, making them an incredibly difficult team against which to garner any sort of momentum – just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who fell to the top-seeded team in Round 1.

The only real question mark above this club is which proven starting netminder will tend to the crease on any given night – both Marc-Andre Fleury and newcomer Robin Lehner are more than capable of backstopping this team to success, as they’ve proven through seven games so far.

Vancouver, meantime, is still building towards its peak, though a six-game series win against the defending Cup champion Blues feels like a defining moment. There was a lot of playoff inexperience on this roster, but they’ve so far shown the poise of a veteran lineup and no one should be surprised if they give Vegas a run for their money, too.

Here’s how the Canucks and Golden Knights match up:

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

ADVANCED STATS

Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

Vegas: 59.53 CF%, 59.46 GF%, 90.07 SV%, 9.65 SH%, 0.997 PDO

Vancouver: 45.69 CF%, 64.52 GF%, 95.69 SV%, 9.48 SH%, 1.052 PDO

POST-SEASON TEAM STATS

Vegas: 19.1 PP%, 86.4 PK%, 30 GF, 21 GA

Vancouver: 25.0 PP%, 80.0 PK%, 28 GF, 24 GA

HEAD TO HEAD RECORD

Vegas: 1-0-1

Vancouver: 1-1-0

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Vegas’ primary strength: Elite two-way play
The Vegas Golden Knights are shooting and scoring at a pace better than most of their peers, yet it’s not just their pure offensive firepower that sets them apart from the rest.

Take it from the coach they just sent packing.

“They have a lot of different elements to their team,” Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton told reporters after Tuesday’s series-ender. “They have some offensive guys who are dangerous whenever they’re on the ice, but for the most part a lot of them play a tremendous two-way game and that’s hard to play against.”

Few players embody Vegas’ elite combination of shutdown and sharp-shooting like Mark Stone. His ability to lock down the defensive zone, orchestrate plays from neutral zone, grind in the corners, and drive hard towards the net – all in just a few seconds – makes him a true difference-maker each time he’s on the ice.

“And then they have the depth guys who are able to tilt the ice and hold you down in your defensive zone and out-change you,” said Colliton. “They’re a physical team. They make you pay a price to make plays and they just come at you over and over again.”

Vancouver’s primary strength: Offence from the core
In a season all about trying to take that “next step,” the Canucks already surpassed expectations and have done it thanks largely to their young core. There was some question as to how young Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes would fare in their first playoff appearances, as well as how captain Bo Horvat would do in his first taste of the post-season, but they, along with JT Miller, have been Vancouver’s top scorers so far.

Entering Round 2, only one team has scored more goals at 5-on-5 than the Canucks and it happens to be their opponents. But their power play, which was a top-four unit in the regular season, has maintained consistency with a 25 per cent conversion rate in the playoffs as well. Vancouver as a team showed a lot of character in upsetting the Blues, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in Game 5 and jumping out to an insurmountable 4-0 lead in Game 6 thanks to key goals from lower in the lineup during those games. But this team is driven by its youngest players at the top of the lineup and this second-round matchup with an up-tempo Vegas team will present a much different challenge than the Blues offered. Can they keep up with the Golden Knights?

Vegas’ primary weakness: Power play
Let’s be honest: using the word “weakness” to describe anything about this Golden Knights squad is a pretty big stretch. They’ve been nearly flawless in the Edmonton bubble so far, going 3-0 in round-robin play to grab the top seed in the West and making quick work of the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1.

While it’s tough to beat this club at five-on-five, Vegas’ power-play unit hasn’t exactly been known for its dominance. Though their 22 per cent power play conversion rate during the regular season — good for ninth in the category league-wide — can’t particularly be called a weakness, their performance with the man advantage this post-season has generally been lacking.

In 21 power-play opportunities through the round robin and first round, Vegas scored four goals — that’s a 19 per cent power-play success rate, which puts them in the bottom half of those rankings. Narrow the scope to just Round 1, and the Golden Knights’ power-play struggles were particularly evident, tallying just a single marker in 10 opportunities with the man advantage for a 10 per cent success rate — and that came late in the second period of the fifth and final game against Chicago.

We’ve seen how heavily special teams can factor into playoff outcomes. With so much playoff parity, it’s often these details that can give a team the edge.

Vancouver’s primary weakness: Allowing too many high quality scoring chances
No team left standing has allowed more high danger chances against at 5-on-5 than the Canucks, who have given up 23 more than any other. Jacob Markstrom, the team’s regular season MVP, has been their rock again in the post-season, with a league-best .905 high danger save percentage. They’ve been able to lean on Markstrom so far, but Vegas’ relentless offence is a couple steps up from what the Canucks’ prior opponents (Minnesota and St. Louis) could muster.

Vegas is all about puck possession and dominating scoring chances, with a 5-on-5 high danger scoring chance percentage over 60 in these playoffs that has led them to a dominating 7-1 record so far. The Canucks either need to improve on this defence, hope Markstrom stands on his head, or be able to match what they give up to Vegas at the other end of the ice. A tough challenge indeed.

Vegas Golden Knights X-Factor: Max Pacioretty
While the Golden Knights have played a very complete game throughout the lineup, we have yet to see a few of the club’s biggest stars really shine.

After leading the Golden Knights in goals (32) and points (66) in the regular season, Max Pacioretty has been relatively quiet so far in Edmonton. It’s not difficult to see why: he missed much of training camp while dealing with an undisclosed injury, sat out all three round-robin games, and was then thrown right into the intensity against Chicago. And while a goal and an assist through four games is nothing to scoff at – especially when teammates and noted playoff performers like Mark Stone, Reilly Smith, and Alex Tuch are there to power the team — his status, comfort level, and overall production will be worth keeping an eye on as the intensity rises. He was magic in Round 1 of last year’s playoffs, registering a handful of goals and 11 points in the seven-game series loss to San Jose. Now, Vegas will need No. 67 at his best once again if they’re to raise Lord Stanley’s chalice at the end of this.

Vancouver Canucks X-Factor: Contributions from the bottom-six
Whether it’s by generating more offence, or slowing Vegas’ forwards, the Canucks’ bottom-six forwards need to be a presence. Tyler Motte was a Round 1 hero, but it’s hard to continue counting on him as a goal scorer. None of the depth forwards have a Corsi percentage over 50 and all have been on the ice for more scoring chances against than for. Markstrom’s brilliance has helped bail them out, but as the competition ramps up there needs to be improvement and greater consistency at both ends.

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