Canucks’ failure to evolve defensively exposed against faster, smarter Knights

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VANCOUVER — His team humiliated in Las Vegas six days earlier, Vancouver Canuck coach Travis Green said before Saturday’s rematch against the Golden Knights that he expected his players to be much better.

“We’re going to learn something about ourselves tonight,” Green predicted.

Well, they did.

They learned in the wake of their dismantlement last Sunday that humiliation is even worse on home ice for the Canucks, who once again were the second-fastest, second-strongest, second-smartest team — luckily, the field was limited to two — in another beatdown, this time 6-2, by the Vegas Golden Knights.

It would have been better were the Canucks an expansion team four years ago because their rebuild since then still has them light years behind the second-season Knights, who in a span of six days outscored Vancouver 9-2 and outshot them 81-50.

Those totals would have been even more lopsided, but Vegas got bored Saturday after building a 5-1 lead in the game’s first 14 minutes.

“We knew they were going to come hard,” Canuck Bo Horvat said. “At the same time, we weren’t ready for them… right off the get-go. Once they made it 3-0, we started to have a little pushback, but we have to start right at the drop of the puck.

“They win battles all over the rink, they’re relentless, and they move pucks pretty quick. That’s the team we’ve got to be.”

The Canucks, whose failure to evolve and improve on defence like they have up front was starkly exposed by the Knights, hadn’t surrendered five goals in the first period at Rogers Arena since March 8, 2004 — the night Todd Bertuzzi wrecked two careers when he attacked the Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore.

Fortunately, no one was physically injured on Saturday, although it may take the Canucks a while to get over the psychological damage inflicted by the vastly-superior Knights.

Vancouver hopes to challenge for a playoff spot next season. Vegas hopes to win a Stanley Cup this one.

The abyss that separates the two teams was again most evident inside the Canucks’ blueline.

“In Vegas, we just knew we didn’t have an effort whatsoever,” defenceman Alex Biega, elevated to a top-four role by injuries, said. “In spurts, I think we played well tonight. But at the end of the day, they were just all over us again.

“In front of the net, we have to have better sticks and we have to defend better. The breakdowns? You can look at the video any way you want, but at the end of the day it’s really working and skating. They skate hard and they work hard and they get to those loose pucks. We have to find a way to get to those loose pucks and win those battles.”

Quinn Hughes, the University of Michigan dynamo drafted seventh-overall last June, is expected to turn pro this week and travel to Vancouver to begin his National Hockey League career.

But the imminent arrival of another potential cornerstone player raises a couple of questions: What, exactly, will the reeling Canucks be bringing him into? And, how much more will Vancouver need next season beyond Hughes to build a defence capable of getting the puck out of its own zone against fast, powerful teams?

The defence the Canucks iced on Saturday, albeit missing injured regulars Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev, could have as many as four players who aren’t NHL regulars next season.

We understand defending is a five-man strategy. But the acquisition of the puck by forwards is made difficult when the blueline group so often looks overmatched on speed, size and net-front presence.

The Golden Knights may be the best team in the NHL at the moment. They are 6-0 since the trade-deadline acquisition of Mark Stone from Ottawa, and last year’s stunning Cup finalists shouldn’t surprise anyone in May if they win the Western Conference again.

But the Knights are hardly outliers in the way they play. They’re quick and direct and attack with speed and power, backed by an active defence. The Canucks, however, have struggled to exit their zone against a lot of teams this season.

Lately, they’ve been especially poor at the start of games, seemingly unable to make a pass under pressure. Shifts get extended in the Vancouver zone and goals ensue. Shots were 11-2 for Vegas halfway through the first. It was 3-0 after 8 ½ minutes.

The Knights’ first five goals, including Stone’s first for his new team, were scored from inside the hashmarks as the Canucks were unable to either move or box out Knights forwards.

Hughes, who is five-foot-10, should help the puck retrieval and puck movement, and may occasionally simply skate the puck out of trouble. He’ll help the power play. But he alone isn’t going to give the Canucks a defence they can win with.

“For me, honestly it’s our starts,” veteran centre Jay Beagle said of the problems. “I don’t think our starts haven’t been good in… I don’t know how long. And that’s on everybody. We leave our goalie out to dry at the start and if he stands on his head and keeps us in it, all of a sudden we get going. But we can’t play like that.”

Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom went from standing on his head last Sunday in a 45-save, 3-0 loss to falling on his face on Saturday. For the first time in 52 games during his breakthrough season as a No. 1, Markstrom was hooked after allowing five goals on 16 shots.

Alex Tuch led the Knights with a goal and two assists, and all four Vegas lines got on the scoresheet. Horvat and Brock Boeser scored for the Canucks, who are 1-4-1 in their last six games and have plummeted from the playoff race by going 4-10-3 the last five weeks.

“To lose the way that we did is unacceptable,” Beagle said. “The group knows that. Going forward, this is the time of year where you grow as a team. We’re obviously in a lot of adversity right now. But to be where we want to be as a group in the future — next year, the year after — you have to know what it takes to win at this time of year.”

They’re learning how little it takes to lose.

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