Canucks need to ramp up efforts for playoffs but time is running out

Jonathan Marchessault scored a goal and notched two assists and Noah Hanifin buried the game-winner to lift the Vegas Golden Knights to a 6-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

LAS VEGAS — Against a heavyweight team, the Vancouver Canucks were lightweights on Tuesday.

Playing the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, a possible first-round playoff opponent for the Canucks in 2 ½ weeks, Vancouver was blown open early and lost 6-3. 

The Canucks’ slack defending and awful execution in the first 10 minutes, as they served a pile of outnumbered rushes to a big, fast Vegas team that feasts on them, never gave Vancouver a chance to win.

The statement the Canucks made against a formidable opponent, so soon after four losses in Vancouver against playoff-bound teams, will surely embolden the Knights.

“I think as an individual, you look at your game. . . and: ‘How can I play better? What can I do to do. . . to contribute to the team?’” Canuck coach Rick Tocchet told reporters after the game. “If everybody does that, you know, you hope the next game will improve on that. Some guys have got to look at their shifts and, ‘What can I do different to help the team?’ There’s a penalty kill; can we be a little bit more aggressive on the wall to get that (puck) out? I think we were a little light getting in there. I just thought we were a little light everywhere. And that’s not the type of game you want when you get into the stretch drive, so we’ve got to find it quickly.”

Sitting at 100 points but with only one out of 10 against elite teams in five games over the last three weeks, the Canucks are hearing the National Hockey League playoffs ticking louder by the day. 

After they visit the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday, playing back-to-back games for the first time since February, Vancouver has just six more games to be ready for the Stanley Cup tournament.

Tocchet has been saying it’s “go-time” for a while now.

Tuesday, he noted that “four or five” guys weren’t ready to go at the start.

“There was about three or four plays, you’ve got to go through people (and) we weren’t going through people,” Tocchet lamented. “In this game — and that’s a good wall team — they’re a team that holds on to pucks, so you have to go through people. We were caught in between. There was like four plays where if you go through the player, they probably don’t get the odd-man rush. I don’t know why they weren’t ready to play.”

He added later: “We’ve got some individuals that they’ve got to start to have that fight and a little bit more will right now. You can’t save it. You can’t save it for two more weeks. It has to happen now.”

The struggling Canucks include, among others, forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Ilya Mikheyev and Pius Suter. Pettersson, signed a month ago to a $92.8-million-US contract extension, went pointless for a fourth straight game (with just two shots on net) against the Knights and has made it on to the scoresheet in just two of the last nine games. 

“It’s hard because we’re not just happy with being in the playoffs right now,” defenceman Carson Soucy said. “We know that we have another level; we’ve seen it as a team. So it is a little disappointing when you come out like that against a good team that is opportunistic.”

Is it a concern the Canucks are still fumbling to find their top level so close to the playoffs?

“It’s not a concern,” Soucy said. “It’s just we’re not happy about it. I guess you can call that concern. But we know that there is that other level. I think a lot of us are disappointed that we’re not at it with this many games left. But the goal right now is just to get it back before Game 1 of the playoffs.”

There won’t be many playoff games for the Canucks if they play like they did here.

There were some controversial plays.

But the head snap and phantom high-sticking penalty Alex Pietrangelo duped referee Kelly Sutherland into calling against Canuck Nikita Zadorov hardly mattered.

The major penalty for boarding soon called against Zadorov for stapling Brett Howden against the boards mattered even less, except to break up Canuck defence pairings and increase confusion about what constitutes a major penalty versus a minor one in the NHL.

What mattered is that the Canucks were atrocious at the start of a such a big game.

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Tocchet explained last week that elite, playoff-hardened teams don’t make the one or two key mistakes that decide big games. If you were tracking Vancouver’s big mistakes on Tuesday, you were out of fingers and counting them on your toes before the game was 10 minutes old.

By then, Anthony Mantha, Jonathan Marchessault and Jack Eichel had all scored for Vegas.

Completely unchecked, Mantha had an open-net tap-in at 1:37 after following up Pavel Dorofeyev’s breakaway, which came when Canuck defenceman Quinn Hughes fell as partner Filip Hronek (and a couple of forwards) went off on a spectacularly ill-timed line change.

Marchessault made it 2-0 at 6:23 by beating goalie Casey DeSmith cleanly on a four-on-three rush with Pettersson and linemate Nils Hoglander in another area code.

And when it seemed like Hoglander — or Teflon-handed Knights goalie Logan Thompson — might make a game of it after all when the Canuck hacked in a loose puck at 9:20 — Vancouver enjoyed being within a goal for all of 20 seconds.

At 9:40, Eichel made it 3-1 on another open net from another outnumbered rush as the Knights passed the puck around Zadorov.  

It was the fourth Vegas goal, Noah Hanifan’s screened point shot on a power play at 14:42, that occurred on the faux penalty manufactured by Pietrangelo. Zadorov’s night ended before the first period did when referees Sutherland and Jon McIsaac huddled over an iPad and ruled that the Canuck’s takeout behind the net on Howden, who turned into the boards before contact, merited a major penalty and game misconduct.

The Knights scored on that power play, too, William Karlsson getting a freebie to make 5-1 at 1:46 when Pietrangelo’s shot trickled through DeSmith’s pads.

The game was over well before then.

A pair of goals by Hughes were largely inconsequential.

“When you play like crap against any team in the league, it’s going to be disappointing,” Hughes, the Canucks’ captain, said.

Veteran Tyler Myers said: “The good teams that we’ve played the last stretch here, we’ve really fallen back on our system and have played our system well. We’ve defended well, even when maybe we weren’t getting the offence we wanted. Tonight, as a five-man unit on the ice, we did not defend well, especially the rushes. We gave up countless odd-man rushes, we weren’t playing within our system and that hurt us tonight.”

It will hurt them more if the Canucks don’t fix their game. Soon.

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