EDMONTON – Two weeks ago, half of the Vancouver Canucks lineup was just trying to learn how to play a National Hockey League playoff game.
Today, they’re trying to figure out how to keep the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, reinvigorated by Sunday’s 3-2 overtime win, from bullying their way all the way back from a 0-2 deficit against a talented but inexperienced Canucks team.
That’s a lot of learning packed into two weeks.
“This is why we play the game right here,” Jay Beagle, a Stanley Cup-winner with the Washington Capitals two years ago, said before this series. “There’s always talk: What does it take to win a Cup? To have gone through it, and just know the detail and how committed everyone has to be and be on the same page. . . it’s a matter of just that will to win and to do whatever it takes to win. That’s an easy thing to say, too. ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got to be committed to do whatever it takes to win.’ But to actually go out and do it… that’s why I thought our group was special right away.”
Canucks centre Bo Horvat said late Sunday after Brayden Schenn’s overtime winner cut the Canucks’ lead to 2-1 that his team shied away from its “identity” at times in Game 3.
Coach Travis Green explained later: “I think what Bo’s probably talking about is we turned the puck over a few times in the neutral zone that stopped us from getting after our game – the forechecking game, playing in their zone. But again, we were a shot away from winning the game.
“I thought we turned the puck over a couple of times in the neutral zone which probably gave them a few more opportunities to get into our zone. We’ve probably got to clean that up a little bit, be a little better with the puck. I thought we lost the puck a couple of times where we normally don’t.”
Turnovers led directly or indirectly to all three St. Louis goals.
But others fueled the relentless Blues’ heavy possession game. St. Louis played as they did on their way to the championship last season, pursuing, pressing and pulverizing the Canucks into mistakes.
The Blues are so effective using their size and speed to take away time and space that any hesitation with the puck, almost any play in traffic that isn’t quick and direct, gets punished.
St. Louis pumped 49 shots on Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom, who was excellent but got matched in net for the first time in the series when St. Louis coach Craig Berube wisely changed goalies and went to Jake Allen.
With Game 4 tonight at Rogers Place, Markstrom will be playing for the second time in less than 24 hours. Including the Canucks’ elimination win against the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round, when his team won 5-4 despite Markstrom’s poor night, the goalie’s save percentage this season is .892 when playing on a second consecutive night.
The Canucks need to be better in front of him. And that requires their best players finding a way to not get dominated by the Blues’ titanic Selke Trophy-winning centre Ryan O’Reilly. For all the discussion about matchups and what Green should or shouldn’t do with last change, the best players have to play the best players when benches get shortened in games like Sunday’s.
Shot attempts were 10-5 for St. Louis when Elias Pettersson was playing 5-on-5 against O’Reilly, but 17-5 for Vancouver when Pettersson was unencumbered by O’Reilly. But if O’Reilly wasn’t shutting down Pettersson, he was nullifying Bo Horvat, whose shot attempts were a dreadful 18-3 against when playing at even strength against O’Reilly.
There is really no way to avoid O’Reilly just as there is no way around the Blues. Vancouver needs to be better – stronger, safer with the puck. Even without fans, the Canucks’ mental strength is also getting tested in this fast, furious series.
Summer school continues.
“Play a little better,” Green said Sunday. “This has been a tight series. We’re a shot away from being up 3-0. It’s 2-1. We’ve talked about having a short-term memory. Whatever happens in any game, whether you win or lose… you’ve got to park it and get ready to play. I think the best part of tonight’s game, the result, is we get to play right away.
“If you don’t play close to your best, it’s hard to win. I don’t think we were quite there tonight. We’ll be ready to go (Monday).”