LAS VEGAS – As he sat in the dressing room Friday morning, thrilled to be getting ready for his first National Hockey League game, Philip Holm marvelled at his situation.
“I never thought I’d be playing an NHL game in Las Vegas,” he said.
That night, the rest of the Vancouver Canucks looked like they could scarcely believe it, either.
They were good enough in the first period to beat the miraculous Vegas Golden Knights, but didn’t look good enough in the second to beat anybody and lost 6-3 to the record-setting expansion team. The Knights moved into first place overall in the NHL.
There is bling everywhere in Vegas except on its hockey team, a collection of players surrendered by others and whose greatest trait is that they work relentlessly and are superb together. Knights? More like serfs the way they labour, except they own the 41-16-4 record they’ve built here in the desert.
The Canucks, meanwhile, continue to search for an identity. The hundreds of Vancouver fans who travelled to witness the Canucks’ first game in Las Vegas saw the team they’re accustomed to: Great one night, poor the next two, and seemingly unable to play consistently well for a full game, let alone a week or month.
“That’s been the problem we’ve had all year: inconsistency,” Canucks defenceman Alex Edler said. “We got away from the things we did well in the first period. Against a team like this, you’ve got to be sharp at all times, got to be aware where they are or they’ll get chances and punish you. We have to play 60 minutes of good hockey.”
They were really good for 20 minutes on Friday. But Vegas took over the game in the second frame when the Canucks couldn’t sustain pressure in the offensive zone, couldn’t defend and couldn’t get a save from goalie Anders Nilsson, who seemed to prove over the course of four straight starts that he shouldn’t be starting.
The game was tied 2-2 only because, after an eight-minute spell of Vancouver dominance in which the Canucks outshot Vegas 8-0 and outscored it 2-0 in the first period, the Knights made it down the ice and scored when William Karlsson, unchecked by Edler, Erik Gudbranson and Bo Horvat, buried a pass out to the slot by Reilly Smith at 14:39.
Soon after a dismal Canucks power play cost them a chance to build momentum at the start of the second period, the Golden Knights went ahead 3-2 at 5:36 when Karlsson caught Brock Boeser dreaming on the backcheck, skated past Vancouver’s rookie and on to Jonathan Marchessault’s pass and whipped the puck past Nilsson.
When Vegas got its first power play on Thomas Vanek’s offensive-zone penalty, the Knights needed just 28 seconds to score when the puck ricocheted into the slot where Marchessault guided a shot into the net at 6:39 after Gudbranson bumped Nilsson, leaving the goalie out of position.
Even when Nilsson was in the right spot – and the puck was drilled at him – it still went in. With Canucks defenceman Derrick Pouliot caught, Tomas Nosek’s made it 5-2 on a breakaway at 18:58 as his shot hit the goalie’s armpit and went in.
Canucks coach Travis Green saved Nilsson the perp-skate to the bench, but replaced him with Jacob Markstrom at the start of the third period.
Marc-Andre Fleury played the whole game for the Knights and was one of their best players despite allowing first-period goals to Vanek and Sven Baertschi, and one in the third to Daniel Sedin, who shot off defenceman Deryk Engelland’s shin pad during a Vancouver power play.
And Holm, the minor-league callup who finally got to make his NHL debut at age 26?
The Knights scored during his second shift.
Welcome to Vegas, baby.
TIME FOR VANEK TO PACK HIS BAGS?
The weekend may not get better for Vanek.
The 34-year-old winger, who has outperformed expectations this season, is Canucks general manager Jim Benning’s main trading chip. Although Vanek has 17 goals and 41 points in 61 games, he probably doesn’t top anyone’s wish list. So both the Canucks and Vanek may have to wait until Monday’s deadline to see where – if anywhere – he goes.
On a one-year contract without trade protection, Vanek knew from the day he signed in September that he would probably be rented to another team at the deadline if the Canucks were out of the playoff race. But knowing, he said Friday morning, hasn’t made the last couple of weeks easier.
“The last two weeks and the next four days, they’re no fun,” Vanek said. “You get up early and check the phone and see if something’s new. Even though I’ve been through it before, it’s always an uneasy feeling.”
Due to how late in the summer he signed and the likelihood the Canucks would eventually trade him, Vanek’s family spent this season in Minnesota, where his wife looked after the kids so they could stay in school at home.
Whether he’s traded or not, Vanek said he’d be happy to sign another one-year deal with the Canucks if Daniel and Henrik Sedin decide to play another season rather than retire.
But Vanek has one condition: “It has to do if I get a no-move or not. I’m not complaining about my family (situation), but my oldest is a fifth grader going into six. I can’t keep putting him into new schools every five months. That’s not fair to my kids. So that’s something I would ask for next time around. What I have learned on one-year deals is if it doesn’t go right the first 50 games, you’re out and exposed. It’s not a fun thing.”