EDMONTON – It helps in a fight when your goalie is your toughest player.
After the Canucks’ humiliating series-opener against the Vegas Golden Knights, who dominated their opponents on the ice and ridiculed them at the benches, Jacob Markstrom’s mental toughness was evident again on Tuesday when he made 38 saves in Vancouver’s 5-2 win.
And that total was actually exceeded by the saves made by teammates, who blocked 40 shots as the Canucks got up off the canvas to even the best-of-seven playoff series.
Last round, when Vancouver blew its 2-0 series lead against the St. Louis Blues, Canucks coach Travis Green said he loved how his team was standing toe-to-toe against the Stanley Cup champions. The Canucks were in the fight.
But they never got off the ropes in Sunday’s 5-0 loss to Vegas. On Tuesday, the Canucks got into the fight, boosted by the return from injury of winger Tyler Toffoli, who scored on his first shift and finished with three points.
His production was matched by linemate Elias Pettersson, who scored a key goal late in the second period after being chirped as a “little squirt” by the Vegas bench on Sunday.
But the Canucks were still outshot 40-27 on Tuesday, including 22-7 in the second period, when Markstrom dug in and brilliantly kept his team ahead.
“We talked to our group,” Green said after the game. “Call it motivation, call it whatever you want, we had to play better today. We had to have a response. I was confident we’d get a response from our group tonight. We’ve always had it in the past when we haven’t played as well as we should. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but I liked that we responded with a better game and evened the series.”
“I thought we responded really well,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “I was proud of the way the guys did. We knew we had to be better. Obviously, they’re a great hockey team and we knew that. We knew we had to come out strong today and we did, and we showed we can play with them. And Marky stood on his head, which obviously was a plus for us as well.”
Horvat was aware of what was being yelled from the Knights’ bench on Sunday. Without fans in Rogers Place, it’s not hard to hear if you can listen through the white noise of the F-bombs.
“We knew how it felt when they were winning, laughing and having a good time on the bench,” Horvat said. “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.”
It could have gotten loud in the second period again, but Markstrom stopped 21 of 22 shots in a frame when the shot attempts were 40-9 for the Knights. Incredibly, the Canucks started and ended the period with a two-goal lead.
“It’s huge to keep it a 1-1 period and just build from that, from what we started in the first,” Markstrom said. “Everybody believes in what we did today.
“As a team, we needed to play better than we did in Game 1. Today we did that and it’s obviously huge to get Toff back, and he scores right away. That’s big for our group and our confidence.”
Out since the Canucks’ first game of the qualifying round on Aug. 2 due to an ankle sprain, Toffoli scored just 1:29 into the game, sweeping the leftovers from Pettersson’s wrap-around – the Canuck had zoomed past defenceman Shea Theodore – into an open net.
Seven seconds into their first power play, the Canucks made it 2-0 at 10:59 when Toffoli threaded a pass out into the low slot between three Knights and onto the stick of Horvat, who chipped it past goalie Robin Lehner.
Toffoli’s return restored the Canucks’ top six, although Green changed the lines from what they had been at the end of the regular season. Toffoli skated with Pettersson and Tanner Pearson, while J.T. Miller moved alongside Horvat and opposite Brock Boeser.
“Getting the OK from everybody, I got all excited,” Toffoli said of returning to the Stanley Cup tournament. “I felt like I was coming back to my first playoff series. It was fun to get back in the lineup and get a big win and tie the series up.”
After the 2-0 lead came the rest of the game.
With the Golden Knights surging, Alex Tuch cut the deficit in half at 6:34 of the second period after Theodore perfectly lobbed the puck high and out and into the path of streaking teammate Nicolas Roy, who had a step on Hughes.
Then Markstrom made a pile of difficult stops before Pettersson, out of nowhere from an offensive-zone faceoff when he was left uncovered above the crease, took a pass from Alex Edler and badly fooled Lehner with a deke at 18:35.
The Knights may still have been trying to process how they could dominate the second period, yet trail 3-1, when Horvat scored again just 18 seconds into the third, converting Boeser’s pass after Edler’s keep-in at the blue line caught both Vegas defencemen cheating up ice and left a two-on-zero in front of Lehner.
Pearson, into an empty net, and Max Pacioretty exchanged late goals.
In the previous round, the Canucks reduced the Blues’ series to a best-of-three.
Now, their series against the Knights is a best-of-five. Trying to win that is slightly less daunting than staring at a best-of-seven. Understandably, not many would pick the Canucks to win either.
Far better Tuesday than Sunday, the Canucks still could have lost by two or three goals were it not for Markstrom. And even Vancouver’s best may not be good enough to take down Vegas. But at least the Canucks are back in the fight, and demonstrated Tuesday they can deliver some scoring punches even if they can’t stand toe-to-toe with the Golden Knights.