VANCOUVER – After telling reporters in the morning that his team had gotten “the smell” out of its game by limiting big mistakes that lead to big scoring chances, Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet’s eyes must have been watering from the foul stench Tuesday night.
The Canucks yielded two first-period goals directly on turnovers and needed several five-star saves from goalie Thatcher Demko to avoid getting blown out early by the Vegas Golden Knights.
Tocchet saw the first 20 minutes, which featured costly turnovers by Ethan Bear and Brock Boeser, as a loss of identity for the team he took over exactly two months ago. But while the Canucks’ identity isn’t where the new coach wants it, there is a lot of it sprouting as Vancouver pushed back over the final two periods before losing 4-3 to the Stanley Cup contenders.
Boeser, who came back to play a strong game on a line with J.T. Miller, had an open look from right wing in the final minute, but Jonathon Quick made a blocker save that helped the Golden Knights move alone into first place in the Western Conference.
“I didn’t like our first (period) at all,” Tocchet said. “It’s a good test for our team because Vegas, they’re one of my favorite teams with their defence. That’s where we strive to (be): a big defence that moves the puck. I don’t think we were ready for it. We had three or four guys who weren’t playing to our identity and I think (we) struggled. And then in the second and third, we made a game of it.
“Three or four guys didn’t play to our identity. You can’t poison the water; it’s not everybody. So it’s just a couple of guys. We have to go north with (the puck) and we took it back and that’s what happens, right?”
Bear’s backhand pass across his zone was intercepted by Phil Kessel and turned into a breakaway goal that made it 1-0 at 3:01. Reilly Smith doubled the lead at 12:11, scoring from the slot after Boeser reversed the puck behind the Canucks’ goal straight to William Karlsson.
“It’s a learning experience, right?” Tocchet said. “You’re playing against one of the better teams and you’ve got to be prepared to play. And I don’t care who you are, we can’t afford to have three or four guys not ready — not ready for that type of game. When that happens, you’re down 2-0.
“You build on these sort of things. At the end of the season, these (games) matter. This is a good evaluation for us. . . to know players in these types of games, can they handle pressure? Do they know how to play to your identity? Huge evaluation. But I do like the fight in the guys, and some guys really dragged us into the fight tonight.”
J.T. Miller was King Kong for the Canucks, scoring twice and drawing an assist on Phil DiGiuseppe’s rebound goal that brought Vancouver within one with 8:17 remaining. Defenceman Quinn Hughes had another masterpiece, logging 29:35 of ice time, generating two more assists to bring his season total to 62, and posting a 74.9-percent expected-goals.
Tocchet said the trio of Miller, Boeser and DiGiuseppe were “monsters.” But he dropped wingers Anthony Beauvillier and Andrei Kuzmenko from Elias Pettersson’s first line. Kuzmenko finished with just 11:34 of ice time.
“I didn’t think that line was good at all,” he said. “There are some teams when you play, like a playoff style, there might be nothing going on so you need a good forecheck. You can’t just wait around for a goal. I just felt that we needed to find somebody who was going to forecheck for Petey.”
BURROUGHS’ BIG ADVENTURE
Canuck defenceman Kyle Burroughs didn’t know he was playing until he was on his way to the rink when he learned that Noah Juulsen had hurt himself in the pre-warmup “activation.” Burroughs said he didn’t arrive at Rogers Arena until about a half-hour until puck drop – director of communications Craig MacEwen met him curbside and valet-parked his car – and didn’t touch the ice until he skated into the starting lineup.
“It was a little stressful at first not to get warmup in and, obviously, not touching any pucks before the game,” Burroughs said. “But it’s part of the job that when you’re called upon, you’ve got to show up. Obviously, I’d like to have a couple of those plays back.”
Told he would be a healthy scratch, Burroughs was one of the last Canucks off the ice after the morning skate. But by the third period, he was pulling shifts with Hughes. Still, Burroughs finished minus-three in 18:04 of TOI.
“He’s one of a kind,” Burroughs said of Hughes. “He’s a unicorn in. . . how he sees the ice, how he uses edges. Nothing really surprises me anymore with him. He’s up there as one of the best defencemen in the league. It’s a combination of skill and confidence. It was a blessing to be on that pairing for the third period. He elevates everybody’s game.”
A SIGHTING TUESDAY, A GAME THURSDAY?
For several days this month, Filip Hronek’s nameplate in the Canucks’ dressing room was like Artem Chubarov’s car in the garage down below: missing its owner.
Chubarov’s Audi became legendary early this century for sticking in the NHL longer than Chubarov, who decided to go home to play in Russia and left his car behind for another season at Rogers Arena. Hronek’s nameplate spent less time in isolation, but it was still reassuring to see its owner skating fully with teammates Tuesday morning for the first time since his March 1 trade from the Detroit Red Wings.
Injured against Ottawa the night before the trade, Hronek felt no urgency to rush to Vancouver. His equipment made it before he did. But there was a fair bit of mystery to his absence and his injury – both seemingly over.
Tocchet said after the morning skate that Hronek is “itching” to play and could make his Canucks debut Thursday at home against the San Jose Sharks.
In a span of four days, the Canucks were a baseline test for the best two teams in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. Before Tuesday, the Golden Knights were tied at 92 points with the Los Angeles Kings.
On Saturday, the Kings dominated the Canucks’ territorially, suffocating with their checking and using offensive-zone time to volume shoot. But Los Angeles didn’t look nearly as dangerous as Vegas, whose speed, power and skill had Vancouver overmatched early on. That’s not a playoff prediction, but we’re just saying.
The three-time Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lighting are the only team that has won more playoff games than Vegas since the Golden Knights entered the NHL in 2017-18 and redefined what an expansion team could be. They didn’t look like a first-year team and haven’t acted like a fledgling franchise since as president George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon constantly seek to upgrade with trades, no matter how unpopular, while chasing a Stanley Cup.
The best teams this season are all in the Eastern Conference, but someone is going to win the West and the Knights, if their goaltending doesn’t let them down, look more capable than anyone.