EDMONTON — The Vancouver Canucks’ power play had on Monday what economists call a market correction – and not in a good way. So did the Canucks team.
After winning five straight playoff games, the Canucks lost for the second time in 24 hours to the powerful St. Louis Blues, whose 3-1 victory at Rogers Place tied their first-round series at 2-2 and brought the reigning Stanley Cup champions to full throttle after their sputtering start to the NHL’s summer tournament.
The superior goaltending and lethal special-teams play that had powered the Canucks have suddenly disappeared as advantages.
Goalie Jacob Markstrom was excellent again, but so was St. Louis netminder Jake Allen. The Blues’ power play outscored the Canucks’. Bo Horvat, who looked like a freight train while scoring four times in the first two games of the series, crashed heavily into the boards early in Game 4 and rarely looked at top speed. In fact, he looked in pain several times.
There wasn’t an inspired effort from anyone at the top of the Vancouver lineup, and even wonder-boy defenceman Quinn Hughes was powerless to change momentum as his historic rookie playoff scoring streak ended at six games.
Oh, and the Canucks are being pillaged by a hairy monster named Ryan O’Reilly, who looks like the best player in the playoffs.
Technically, the first-round series is still only tied. But it sure seems like the Blues are in control after sweeping back-to-back games for St. Louis’ first wins of any kind since March.
“We played a hard back-to-back against the Stanley Cup champs,” Canucks winger J.T. Miller said. “We knew it was a tall task. We were one shot away from going up 3-0 (before losing 3-2 in overtime on Sunday) and tonight it was 1-1 5-on-5. It’s not like we’re getting our butts whipped up and down the rink. They’re a good team, we’re a good team. It’s going to be a hard, long series. We signed up for that.
“The mindset is: have a good day off tomorrow and come back ready to go because it’s going to be another battle.”
The Blues have turned the battle.
They outshot the Canucks 37-23 in Game 4, scoring twice on the power play while blanking Vancouver’s potent man-advantage unit on seven chances. The Canucks generated so little pressure around Allen that coach Travis Green pureed his forward lines in the third period and twice sent out top centre Elias Pettersson to play with rookie grinder Zack MacEwen.
Perhaps there was a message in that deployment for Pettersson.
The Canucks appear to have no antidote for O’Reilly, the Selke Trophy and Conn Smyth winner who started the series by making Pettersson, Miller and Brock Boeser disappear at even-strength and has decided to start scoring now, too.
He had two goals and an assist Monday and has so tilted the ice toward the Canucks end that the Blues have generated 79 per cent of shot attempts when O’Reilly is playing.
“Obviously, he’s a smart player,” Vancouver defenceman Chris Tanev said. “He’s a very talented player. He’s thinking one step ahead of everyone out there. He does everything well. From faceoffs to winning board battles to scoring goals, he’s a full 200-foot player. We’ve got to find a way to slow down that line.”
Miller has an idea for that.
“I don’t think we played in their end a whole lot 5-on-5,” he said. “We’re not getting enough pucks off forechecks (or) creating enough zone time. You guys ask a lot questions about O’Reilly and he’s a heckuva player, no doubt. But he’s spending no time in his own end and a lot in ours. I think we can challenge ourselves to be better and win more pucks in their end of the rink so they’re wasting their shifts defending instead of the other way around.”
Having crushed it on special teams in the playoffs, the Canucks fell behind 1-0 in the first period when the Blues’ scored on the power play at 16:43 – after Vancouver was ineffective on three advantages of its own.
O’Reilly collected the lively end-boards rebound from Alex Pietrangelo’s wayward point shot and flipped the puck in from a sharp angle before Markstrom could fully react.
The Canucks snatched an equalizer 40 seconds into the second period when Miller bounced a high-slot deflection past Allen after Pietrangelo played the puck straight to Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler at the point.
The goal could have been a launchpad for Vancouver. Instead, St. Louis, aided by three straight Canucks penalties, dominated the period and built its first two-goal lead of the series.
O’Reilly – who else? – made it 2-1 at 6:52 when Edler and defence partner Troy Stecher both converged on David Perron, leaving a four-lane highway to the net for O’Reilly, who deftly lifted a backhand into the top corner.
Edler’s period got worse. About three minutes after missing the St. Louis net with a bouncing puck on a quick breakaway, the defenceman scored an own-goal to make it 3-1 at 15:47. In fairness to Edler, if he didn’t put it in, Blues forward Brayden Schenn, open at the back post for a tap-in, likely would have during a two-man advantage made possible by a needless roughing penalty to MacEwen and a boarding call against Oscar Fantenberg.
St. Louis also hit a couple of posts and could have had the win sealed after 40 minutes. In the final 20, the Canucks managed just seven shots.
“The games are so tight and so close, we’ve got to keep going,” Markstrom said.
The Canucks’ mental strength will be tested until Game 5 on Wednesday. It only feels like they’re losing the series.