EDMONTON – Considering they are one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights are surrounded by a lot of noise these days – some of it actually coming from their mouths.
Before Vegas opened its quarter-final playoff series Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks, Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had to explain that agent Allan Walsh acted out of love and support when he posted a graphic, photo-shopped image of his client being bloodily skewered through the back by coach Peter DeBoer’s sword. Of course, Fleury, the face of the Vegas franchise, allowed the image to pollute social media for 24 hours before asking his loyal friend to remove it.
And before the Knights began their video press conference on Wednesday, veteran forward Jonathan Marchessault apologized for astoundingly crude and churlish messages he posted Tuesday on Instagram in response to some fans accusing him of embellishing a hooking penalty he drew during Vancouver’s 5-2 win that evened the series at 1-1.
“I think it was childish,” Marchessault said. “It was immature, not professional. I want to say I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.”
He was talking about Instagram, not diving.
And then there were the frat boys on the Vegas bench who could be heard in fan-less Rogers Place mocking several Canucks, notably emerging stars Elias “Little Squirt” Pettersson and Quinn “Waterboy” Hughes, during the Knights’ 5-0 win on Sunday.
There has been chirping in hockey as long as there has been ice, but most of the time nobody except the players are much aware of it. Thank goodness there were fans in the arenas until now to drown out most of the worst things said in “gamesmanship” over the years. The NHL would have asked Ryan Kesler to leave the bubble were playoff games conducted in a vacuum a decade ago.
The insults are rarely even funny or imaginative. Little squirt? Are you kidding me? Was the annoying kid from The Polar Express in the Vegas lineup on Sunday. It’s a wonder no one retorted: “Hey, knock it off.”
But boys being boys, and great players being great players, Pettersson naturally responded with a titanic performance in Game 2, scoring one goal and setting up two others as the Canucks jumped the Knights at the start to even the best-of-seven series.
“We knew how it felt when they were winning, laughing and having a good time on the bench,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said after the game. “We keep that in the back of our mind for sure. We wanted to come out strong tonight and have a statement, and I thought we did that. Obviously, it was a lot quieter over there. We’re going to try to keep it that way.”
Well, we’ll see about that.
Chirping is emboldened by dislike and disparity, which means Pettersson is more empowered than most to dictate the volume on the Vegas bench.
His three points gave him 16 in 12 playoff games, second in the league behind only Colorado Avalanche Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, who had 18 points.
In 50 years, no other Canuck has scored that many points in his first 12 post-season games. Pettersson is 21 years old, learning to play playoff hockey and is expected to lead the Canucks – a burden that previous Vancouver stars like Pavel Bure, and Daniel and Henrik Sedin were not encumbered with in their first Stanley Cup tournaments.
Anyone who thinks a simple insult wouldn’t fire up Pettersson hasn’t paid attention to his first two years in the NHL. He has melted reporters with his glare over far less.
“You’d have to ask him, but I can imagine it did,” defenceman Troy Stecher said on Wednesday’s media call. “Petey is a really competitive individual. He wants to win. . . and he puts in the work during practices to improve his game. He wants to be that superstar that he already is. I’m sure that fuelled him a little bit. I think his play did the talking last night.”
Pettersson still wore his game face after the game, saying little when asked about the chirping two nights earlier.
“It’s emotions,” he said. “I don’t focus on that too much. I just want to be out there, play my best and win a hockey game for the team.”
The Canucks started winning more of those after Pettersson arrived from Sweden.
“I think if you went back and talked about any young player that is now a top player in the league, they probably surprised people along the way,” Canucks coach Travis Green said Wednesday. “Yeah, I think he surprises us at times but we also have a lot of confidence in him and a lot of faith in him that he wants to do well.
“He goes about it quietly, but he’s a fierce competitor. He wants to win badly. It’s not just for personal reasons; he understands it’s more than just about. . . one individual player on a team. He does his part. I thought he responded well after Game 1. I thought our whole team did, but him in particular.”
Stecher said: “He comes to the rink every day with a purpose. Those superstars, guys of his calibre, they just kind of have that look in their eye that they want to be the best and are going to do everything they can to be the best. I don’t think Petey is any different than that.”
Pettersson had that look in his eye on Tuesday. With any luck, somebody on the Knights called him skinny.