LAS VEGAS – The greatest show in Vegas is the Golden Knights hockey team. They’re more popular than Wayne Newton and better than any expansion team in National Hockey League history.
The Vancouver Canucks were comped front-row seats Tuesday, where they watched the Knights’ act – speed, directness, relentlessness – and were beaten 4-1 on the Las Vegas strip.
But the NHL, anywhere, is a pretty good act. Not many players get this stage. It’s too bad that many Canucks seem ambivalent about keeping their place in the spotlight.
Yes, it’s tough mentally to rouse yourself to play games in garbage time that are meaningless to everything but the draft lottery, which is what bad teams like the Canucks are doing in March.
But this also might be the best chance some of their players get to making the NHL or staying in the league.
Young players like Derrick Pouliot, Brendan Leipsic, Jake Virtanen, Nikolay Goldobin, Tyler Motte and Reid Boucher are trying to prove they belong. Other guys like Jussi Jokinen, Sam Gagner, Nic Dowd and Troy Stecher are trying to show they deserve to stay.
In that context, these final games for the Canucks, who have lost seven straight, may as well be the playoffs.
“It’s super tough,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said of the mental challenge. “But again, there’s no excuses for anyone to give up or give in. Frustrated is when you see guys who should be battling for spots, who should be excited to play in this league because it’s a really tough league to play in. We can’t take anything for granted here. No one can. We know there’s going to be changes next year and guys have to show up and show they want to be here.”
But the two points almost always stay in Vegas.
The Knights are 26-9-2 at T-Mobile Arena, where the rollicking atmosphere starts long before the game begins and is fuelled by the home team’s attacking, offensive style and its fans’ eagerness to have fun. This is a very difficult place to play.
Exactly, Sedin said. All the better stage to show something.
“It’s a tough building to come into,” he said. “In here and San Jose, Nashville and LA, Anaheim, those are tough buildings to play in. That’s where you want to see guys show up and do the things you need to do to win. At home, things usually come by themselves. It’s easy to play at home. But on the road in tough buildings, that’s where you see where guys are.”
Where are the Canucks?
Stalled at 59 points and with only seven goals during their seven-game losing streak, the Canucks are exactly 40 points behind the Knights. Forty! Think about that. Vegas could stop playing now and it would probably be sometime in 2019 before the Canucks caught up in the standings.
The Knights led 2-0 after five minutes on Tuesday. Sure, there were lucky bounces on both goals. Penn and Teller couldn’t recreate Cody Eakin’s swatted goal that bounced off Pouliot’s shoulder and up and over Markstrom at 4:53.
But it was already clear by then which was the better team. The Knights will win 50 games this season and start the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month as a first-round favourite. The Canucks will fail to win 30 and finish as the worst Vancouver team this century.
“Their team came ready to play tonight, and it’s a good hockey team,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “When you get down 2-0 early and 3-0 after one (period), you’re not going to come back against a team like that. We’re not.
“Obviously it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to lose. The players are frustrated. I don’t blame them. It’s a combination of not scoring – 30 shots, one goal – and losing. That will frustrate a group. But you’ve got to get ready to play.
“Guys have a lot to play for. Guys are getting ample opportunity to play in the NHL. That’s what a lot of these guys have been waiting for. It shouldn’t be hard for them to get ready to play.”
After the early goals by Eakin and Jonathan Marchessault, whose shot from the slot hit Canuck Bo Horvat and ricocheted post-and-in, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare made it 3-0 at 19:27 of the opening period when he rattled a shot through Markstrom after Stecher was separated from the puck by Ryan Reaves’ hit behind the net.
Tomas Tatar scored in the second period for Vegas and Brandon Sutter in the third for Vancouver, forcing a shap-angle shot between goalie Malcolm Subban’s pads.
Nobody has more fun at an NHL game than fans here, but it should give them pause that Knights’ starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury left the game in the first intermission after stopping the seven shots the Canucks directed on net.
Short of the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators, not much can stop the Knights. But a significant injury to Fleury could.
“I remember playing them at home the first time they came into our building, and I was surprised how fast they played,” Sedin said. “They have five guys taking off as soon as they get the puck. And they make plays. Even when you play in their end, you battle and battle and battle. And when you give the puck away, a lot of teams would just chip it out and change. But they keep coming at you, and then you have to backcheck and all of a sudden you’re tired in your end. That’s how they scored their fourth goal tonight. That’s how they score a lot of goals.”
The Canucks do not know what that feels like.