EDMONTON — The problem with being an underdog in the National Hockey League playoffs? The further you go, the harder it gets.
Welcome, Vancouver Canucks, to Round 2.
What? You just beat the Stanley Cup champs, a big, rugged experienced St. Louis Blues club?
Great. Now you get the Vegas Golden Knights, who are just as big, likely faster and surely deeper, with better goaltending and a visit to the Stanley Cup Final as recent two springs ago. There, they lost to Washington. So they’re also hungrier than St. Louis was.
“They’re a fast team, they’re a good team,” Canucks head coach Travis Green submitted after Game 1. “We just need to play better.”
Accurate on all counts, certainly. The “just,” however, suggests a certain simplicity in taking a bigger bite out of Game 2 than the Canucks were able to get in Game 1, a 5-0 affair that at no time appeared as if it might go the other way.
Vancouver will have to increase their commitment about ten-fold if that is to happen. Truly, the Canucks merely dipped their collective toe into the Round 2 waters Sunday night, while Vegas had 20 guys who were submerged and churning out shift after shift of superior hockey to what Vancouver brought to the table.
“I just don’t think we were good enough tonight. I just don’t think we got up to our standard today,” admitted defenceman Alex Edler, one of only two Canucks players made available to the media postgame. “They’re a good team, they’re quick. We just have to play our game better. We’ve shown we are a good team, and have to show that in Game 2.”
In a 5-0 game we are left to weight how much of the result was Vegas dominance, and how much was due to an emotional deficit from a Canucks team that polished off St. Louis only two nights before.
Was Vegas that good? Was Vancouver that bad?
Well, most would agree that Vegas is bigger, deeper, and more playoff steeled than the Canucks. Knowing this, you knew they would play with the confidence and conviction of a steep favorite, traits that come across in a team that rolled four lines, each of which got the better of their opposite number coming over the boards for Vancouver.
The Golden Knights are an excellent forechecking club, forcing multiple failed zone exit attempts out of the opponent and then getting a change in that creates a fresh Vegas unit out against a tired opponent. Then they pin you in your own zone for another 30 seconds, before the dam predictably breaks.
“That’s our game, something we’ve been building on,” said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer. “Hanging on to the pucks … and trying to fatigue teams with our depth. When we’re playing like that we’re a tough team to play against.”
The well-known stat is that the Golden Knights have never lost a game against Vancouver, going 8-0-2 in regular season encounters and now 1-0 in the playoffs. What we don’t know is how the Canucks react to having been beaten so thoroughly in the first game of this series.
“We’re definitely not going to just flush it and move on,” Green said. “Whether we played well, or didn’t, (we’ll) analyze our game. We’ve got to be better with the puck, that would be a start.
“It was a different type of game tonight than any we’ve played so far,” he admitted. “This was probably our worst game (of the playoffs) tonight.”
It was, in no uncertain terms, the rockiest night of young Quinn Hughes’ embryonic playoff career, finding himself on the ice for the first three of Vegas’ even strength goals. Hughes was only a minus player twice in these playoffs — interestingly, in Game 1’s against Minnesota and St. Louis — before bouncing back defensively in each series.
So Hughes becomes a microcosm for the macro situation the Canucks find themselves in, having arrived for Round 2 lacking in almost every department. Can he bounce back like he did in each of the Qualifying Round and Round 1?
Or, having become an obvious focal point of DeBoer’s game plan, has the year-long ascension of Hughes’ finally met an impediment that is too great — even for such a fine young defenceman?
That’s not a prediction we’re willing to make, having watched him play his way to becoming a Calder Trophy candidate.
Many made the same mistake with the Canucks as a whole, after the Blues tied their Round 1 series 2-2, predicting that the fun was over for Vancouver. That it had been a nice run, but the big boys had found their stride now, and the Canucks were about to find out what a real Cup contender looks like.
Yeah, how did that prediction work out?
Well, we’re there again Canucks fans, with a Vancouver team that will have to prove it belongs in this series. Starting on Tuesday night.
Fascinating, isn’t it?