After poor defensive showing, Canucks’ addition of Zadorov proves timely

Jack Eichel collected three points, including the eventual game-winner in his 500th NHL career game to help lead the Vegas Golden Knights to a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

VANCOUVER — The best thing about the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday was Nikita Zadorov, and he didn’t even play.

Neither did most of the team’s top players — not the way they have been playing — as the Canucks were flattened and humbled by the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, who won 4-1 at Rogers Arena and made the one point that had separated the teams in the National Hockey League standings look like misprint.

It wasn’t close. And neither was Zadorov, who is waiting to join the Canucks Saturday in Calgary after the Flames traded him to Vancouver for third- and fifth-round draft picks about three hours before Thursday’s game in Vancouver.

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The experienced, combative defenceman should help the Canucks, who are 4-5-0 since six-foot-five defenceman Carson Soucy left the lineup with a fracture.

Also missing Guillaume Brisebois due to a concussion, the Canucks’ defence needed help. It could have used it on the ice Thursday.

It wasn’t close to their poorest game of the season, but still one of the more disappointing ones for the Canucks, who had a chance to move past the Knights and atop the Western Conference standings but looked overmatched.

“I don’t think it was necessarily an off-game,” veteran Canuck Ian Cole said. “We’ve had more ill-prepared games than that. But they play a style that’s very tough to play against. You don’t get a ton, you need to play a very patient game, and they’re very good at clogging the middle, not giving you time and space, and transitioning the puck and getting odd-man rushes. And they capitalize when they get the chances. 

“But these are the type of games that we’re going to be in as the season goes on and we play into the spring and, hopefully, summer. They’re going to be very tight-checking, a lot of times very low-event hockey. We need to be comfortable playing in those games. We can’t vacate what we do or what makes us successful because of that. Is it tough to play against? Yeah, it is. If we want to be a good team, we’re going to have to make those adjustments.”

The Golden Knights played as if they were bemused by the idea that the game was somehow an examination of the long-standing balance of power within the Pacific Division. 

They physically bullied the Canucks, knocking them off pucks and pushing them to the ice, winning most of the puck battles and owning the front of their net.

Ivan Barbashev opened scoring at 4:46 — after Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko had made point-blank saves against Barbashev and Jack Eichel — as the five Canuck skaters stood clustered near their net while the three Vegas forwards took shooting practice. There are old-growth trees less-rooted than the Canuck skaters looked on that goal.

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Zadorov, at least, might have hit someone. 

It should be noted the Canucks on the ice were elite defencemen Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek and coach Rick Tocchet’s matchup line of J.T. Miller between Brock Boeser and Phil Di Giuseppe.

“I’m a big believer that pressure meets pressure,” Tocchet said. “And there were some situations where there was a lot of pressure and you’ve got to meet it, and I thought we went away from it. That goal? Yeah, we went away from it. I’m not sure you can pinpoint one guy, but that was a microcosm of our game and some of those goals. Like, where are you going? You’re standing around watching guys in front of our net. That’s kind of the thing you’re disappointed in.”

Barbashev set up Eichel to make it 2-0 at 16:18 when a four-on-three Vegas rush turned into a three-on-two, then a two-on-one, giving Demko little chance to get across his net to stop Eichel.

And yes, there was some puck luck on both goals for Vegas. But the shots were already 14-7 by then for the visitors, and the Canucks were offering little physical resistance in front of Demko — polar opposite to how the Golden Knights play in front of their goalies.

“The challenge is the same every night — to outplay their line and they outplayed us in the first period and that’s on me,” Miller told reporters after losing his matchup against Eichel. “I played a little slow in the first period today, and they were ready to play. 

“It’s will and determination — things that are totally in our control. When we’re playing well, we do them. But right now, we tend to do it every once in a while or every other night, and the results are showing. I’m just disappointed, I guess, in myself for the start of the game today. When their line gets two on you, basically they’re just playing with the lead from that point.”

Asked about the Stonehenge-like defending on the opening goal, Miller said: “Nobody covered anybody. We might as well not even been there.”

William Karlsson beat Demko with an uncontested shot from the right-wing dot to make it 3-0 on a second-period power play. And when the Canucks needed a mighty surge to start the third period, they iced the puck at 11 seconds and gave up a fourth goal, on a netfront bounce off Brett Howden, five seconds later.

Miller set up Andrei Kuzmenko on a two-on-one for the Canucks’ lone goal, at 4:01 of the third. But Vancouver was still outshot 15-6 in the period.

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It was Kuzmenko’s first goal in 11 games, so at least there was that.

“I don’t think you really have to say much to the players,” Tocchet said. “One thing with these guys, they look at their shifts. And then self-awareness and self-evaluation is big with me. I thought we had eight or nine or 10 guys that played really hard. . .  and we just had some guys that had tough nights. They know. They know that some guys have got to be better. In 24 or 48 hours we have a game against Calgary, and hopefully some of those guys can find their legs. Find a better game for us.”

Zadorov will play his first game for Vancouver on Saturday, against the team that just traded him.

“We’re really excited,” Tocchet said. “He’s a big guy. He can skate. He can shoot.

“I’m sure he’s going to be fired up to play. And we need minutes. We’re playing some other guys too much, and you can tell it’s starting to wear on our defence. So he’s a much-needed guy. It’s a great trade for us.”

The highlight of the night.

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