Canucks squander big opportunity in deflating loss to Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights tie the Vancouver Canucks early in the third period and go on to finish the game 5-3 with goals from Max Pacioretty and William Karlsson, going up 3-1 in the series.

EDMONTON – You work and sacrifice, suffer physically, battle and crawl and build yourself a one-goal lead to try to save your season. And then the Vegas Golden Knights arrive like a landslide in the third period, pump in three goals and win 5-3.

And if you’re the Vancouver Canucks, you have to wonder if Sunday was your last best chance to make this a series.

After playing well for two periods on Sunday, the Canucks were buried by three goals in six-and-a-half minutes in the third and lost for the second time in 25 hours to the Knights, who took a 3-1 lead in this second-round Stanley Cup Playoffs clash.

Yes, the Golden Knights are loud and obnoxious. Who needs fans in the building when you have Ryan Reaves and the rest of the Vegas bench? But they seem capable of backing up everything they say.

Vegas won Game 3 with defence and won Game 4 with offence, scoring off the rush, scoring off the cycle and scoring on the power play. The Canucks, Canada’s last-standing team — not counting all the American ones in the bubble — are a Tuesday loss away from leaving the Stanley Cup tournament.

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“It’s unchartered territory for a lot of players, obviously,” veteran Canucks forward J.T. Miller said late Sunday. “A lot of young guys on the team. We’ve just got to worry about next game. We’ve proven we can play with (the Golden Knights) for a long stretch of the first four games. We’re going to come out and try to have a good start to the next game and go from there. It’s the only thing we can focus on at this point.

“We put ourselves in a helluva spot to win a hockey game (tonight) and get right back in the series. And we need to do a better job… I mean, it’s not the third period we wanted. That’s a dream spot to be in in the playoffs, (trying) to tie a series 2-2 and be up one going into the third. And they had too many good looks.”

Starting with Nate Schmidt’s equalizer at 2:52, a 50-foot slapshot that beat goalie Jacob Markstrom between his arm and torso after a shift of sustained pressure, the Golden Knights surged back in the first half of the final period, scoring three times on Canucks mistakes and a couple of bounces.

Max Pacioretty reached behind him for the puck as he was being checked to somehow finish a three-on-two rush from Schmidt’s pass to put Vegas ahead 4-3 at 7:02. And from the remnants of another outnumbered rush, William Karlsson tapped in Pacioretty’s centring pass 87 seconds later as both Markstrom and defenceman Tyler Myers, just back after missing seven games with a shoulder injury, reacted slowly.

Markstrom made some terrific saves during the game but looked tired in the third trying to play both halves of the playoff back-to-back. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer had the luxury of dividing the weekend workload between his two “No. 1” goalies, starting Marc-Andre Fleury Sunday after Robin Lehner shut out the Canucks 3-0 on Saturday.

“I felt great,” Markstrom said defiantly after the game. “There was about five (goals) I would like to have back.”

“There’s no quit in this team,” Canucks centre Elias Pettersson said. “We’ve been working all season for this and we’re not going to back down without a battle. Of course, it’s frustrating now, but we’ve just got to focus on next game.”

They’d better focus solely on Tuesday because the idea right now of winning three straight against the Golden Knights is a little overwhelming.

The biggest game of the series was also the best as the Canucks and Golden Knights traded four goals through 25 minutes Sunday before Tyler Toffoli’s power-play marker gave Vancouver its first lead at 11:26 of the second period.

Quinn Hughes, hellaciously hit earlier in the game by Reaves to initiate a Vegas goal, surprised the Golden Knights by continuing forward on a power-play break in rather than drop the puck in the neutral zone. Hughes passed to Toffoli, who fired from close range high and in off Fleury’s shoulder.

The Canucks had tied the game seven minutes earlier when Fleury spilled a deflection from Miller, leaving captain Bo Horvat a tap-in that made it 2-2 at 4:07.

Vancouver’s push was impressive, as Vegas built a 2-1 lead in the first period but could have led by more based on the scoring chances.

Pacioretty made it 1-0 for the Golden Knights at 9:28, punishing the Canucks for a too-man-men penalty by shooting through Markstrom’s pads from the high slot.

Pettersson tied it 1-1 at 11:15, lethally measuring his shot and picking his spot glove-side on Fleury during Vancouver’s first power play.

But Vegas re-took the lead just 2:04 later when fourth-line centre Chandler Stephenson finished a three-on-two rush from Shea Theodore’s pass. The prerequisite to the goal was the 240-pound Reaves running over Hughes when the Canucks’ five-foot-10 rookie tried to reverse with the puck in the offensive zone, making himself a hugely inviting target. It was like a bear running over a rabbit.

As the Knights counter-attacked with Hughes caught and the Vancouver bench screaming for a penalty, Toffoli turned to confront Reaves, leaving lots of time and space for Vegas to execute its outnumbered rush.

After the goal, Reaves and other Golden Knights could be heard mocking Hughes, and the trash-talking soon involved Canucks coach Travis Green.

Reaves could have been called for boarding, but it would have been marginal. And the Canucks really had no complaints because in the second period Jonathan Marchessault was called for a high-stick on Troy Stecher when the offending twig actually belonged to Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler.

If the Canucks really want to shut up the Golden Knights, all they have to do is win.

“You’re not going to win the series next game,” Miller said. “You’ve got to worry about (only) next game. We’re not worried about… whatever can happen after that.”

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