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I Watched This Game: Canucks can't convince Kings to relinquish early lead

The Canucks spotted the Kings a two-goal lead in the first five minutes, which was, shockingly, a bad idea.
The Vancouver Canucks fell 6-3 to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.

The one nice thing that can be said about the Vancouver Canucks game against the Los Angeles Kings is that at least it wasn’t a total snoozefest.

Sure, the Kings took an early lead and used their much-maligned 1-3-1 trap to slow the game down to defend it but the two teams combined for nine goals. There was some excitement to be had on Saturday night, which has not been the case in the Canucks’ previous meetings with the Kings.

Of course, that excitement was largely at the Canucks’ expense, as the Kings cruised to a 6-3 win.

It was an aggravating game from the Canucks’ perspective, as they gave up an early lead, and every time they tried to claw their way back into the game, the Kings responded to put the game further out of reach. They forced the Canucks into turnovers or capitalized on unforced errors.

“We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” said J.T. Miller. “I’m not saying we can’t make mistakes but they just cost us today.”

Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet didn’t even see it as that poor an effort from his team despite the lopsided score.

“We weren’t that bad. We were in the game today, we had some chances. They converted, we didn’t,” said Tocchet. “You can look at the six goals and think it’s bad, but I actually liked the effort. Guys tried hard, just too many egregious mistakes, then it’s in your net.”

That leads to the elephant in the room: goaltending. 

The Kings’ first three goals were scored on just six shots, as Casey DeSmith got beat cleanly three times. When the Canucks made mistakes and needed DeSmith to bail them out, his bucket came up empty.

Look, DeSmith didn’t cost the Canucks the game, by any means. The Kings scored on power plays, breakaways, and defensive breakdowns that can’t be pinned on DeSmith. But it made it all too clear how much Thatcher Demko means to the Canucks.

Demko has shown time and time again that he can bail out his teammates after a mistake, that he can steal a game that ought to be a loss and turn it into a win. DeSmith has been a capable enough backup goaltender for the Canucks this season but he just isn’t an everyday starter and this last stretch of games has made that clear.

It's not that DeSmith was awful but Demko has made a habit of taking what should be sure goals and turning them into spectacular saves. Or, more often, he turns them into routine-looking saves, when they're truly anything but. The Canucks desperately need Demko to get back in the lineup.

It felt like it would have been a very different experience if Demko had been in the net when I watched this game.

  • The very simple story of this game is that the Canucks took two penalties in the first five minutes and then couldn’t kill them. That’s really it. You simply can’t afford to spot a team like the Kings a two-goal lead because they’re harder to chase down than Jeremy Renner in the movie Tag.  
  • “They make you earn everything and it’s an experienced group,” said Miller of the Kings. “We’re certainly going to be in situations like this moving forward, so we’ve got to find a way to not make as many big mistakes in games like that.”
  • The first Kings goal happened because Nikita Zadorov overplayed a passing lane instead of getting in the shooting lane. With Adrian Kempe walking in from the top of the right faceoff circle, the responsibility of the defenceman is to take away the far side of the net and leave the short side to the goaltender. Instead, Zadorov was taking away a backdoor pass that was already being taken away by Nils Åman. Like the son of a diehard Gary Larson fan, Kempe was gifted the entire far side and fired the puck into the top corner.
  • On the second goal, it was Åman’s turn for a bad read, as he fully committed to taking away the backdoor play — a tough pass to make through a busy slot — and left the slot wide open for Drew Doughty to walk in and place a one-timer past DeSmith. Doughty didn’t get a lot on the shot, so that’s one that DeSmith had to have but he tracked it poorly and was still shuffling to get square as the puck went past him.
  • The Canucks responded with a goal of their own after Pierre-Luc Dubois lost his stick on a Canucks zone entry. Elias Pettersson spotted that Dubois was completely lost without his stick and had left Brock Boeser wide open. Boeser took Pettersson’s pass, then took advantage of a stickless Dubois (“Yes, it’s true: this man has no stick”) to drive to the net and shove the puck past Cam Talbot.
  • That goal doesn’t happen without Ian Cole jumping up in the rush to break the Kings’ 1-3-1 and gain the zone, which seems like something the Canucks should note for the future. Cole had a very strong game: shot attempts were 25-to-11 for the Canucks with Cole on the ice at 5-on-5, while high-danger chances were 8-to-1 according to Natural Stat Trick.
  • Pettersson nearly tied the game 30 seconds later. Vasily Podkolzin made a superb stretch pass to spring Pettersson on a breakaway. Pettersson kept his feet moving to pull away from Matt Roy and his shot beat Talbot’s blocker but not the shaft of his stick and went just wide. If that puck went in, this could have been a very different game but it didn’t and it wasn’t. 
  • There’s something to be said for Podkolzin feeling more and more comfortable making plays, though. Just throwing this out there but Podkolzin, Pettersson, and Nils Höglander were one of the Canucks’ best line combinations analytically a couple of years ago. It might be worth trying again. 
  • A defensive breakdown by the Canucks restored the Kings’ two-goal lead early in the second period. Nikita Zadorov directed Podkolzin where to go, pointing him to take Kevin Fiala at the point. The trouble was that Fiala was Zadorov’s man and Podkolzin was checking Jordan Spence. When Podkolzin switched to Fiala, Zadorov didn't pick up Spence and neither did anyone else, giving him a free shot from the top of the zone that Alex Laferriere deftly deflected in.
  • Twice in this game, Boeser had grade-A scoring chances, couldn’t put the puck in the net, and the Kings went the other way and scored shortly after. It’s hard to blame Boeser — as Travis Green always said, it’s hard to score goals in this league — but those were a couple of tough two-goal swings for the Canucks and emblematic of what Tocchet meant when he said, “They converted; we didn’t.”
  • Fiala scored on a breakaway right after Boeser put a puck just wide of an open net. Carson Soucy made a bad read on a puck that Anze Kopitar hoisted out into the neutral zone, allowing Fiala to get behind him. While DeSmith made the initial save, he slid himself out of the net to do so, allowing Fiala to punch in the rebound to make it 4-1.
  • It was a tough game all around for Soucy. Shot attempts were 19-to-9 for the Kings when Soucy was on the ice at 5-on-5. He just couldn’t keep the opposing team out of the defensive zone, which has not typically been an issue for him this season. 
  • The Kings went 2-for-4 on the power play; the Canucks went 0-for-3. So, that’s another big difference in this game. The power play didn’t look all that bad, though, getting nine shots on goal with some quality looks. They just couldn’t score. And then they gave up a shorthanded goal. Okay, maybe it did look all that bad.
  • “We had nine or ten shots. Just conversion,” said Tocchet. “It was better but we’ve got to convert on some plays. If you have ten shots, you’ve got to convert. Maybe next game, we will. I’m happy with the way we got the shots, we’ve just got to put them in now.”
  • Down 4-1 going into the third period, the Canucks still showed signs of life as J.T. Miller took a Filip Hronek pass in full flight to burst through the neutral zone trap, then cut into the slot to backhand a puck on net. That shot wasn’t too threatening but it did create a rebound for Dakota Joshua, who was also in full flight but in stealth mode, making him an F-117 Nighthawk. Successfully evading the Kings’ radar down the left wing, Joshua pounced on the rebound to chip it in for the Canucks' second goal.
  • Unfortunately, the Canucks’ signs of life were immediately extinguished when Trevor Moore knocked down an attempted pass by Conor Garland in the defensive zone to create an impromptu 2-on-1 down low for the Kings. Moore and Phillip Danault executed a quick give-and-go to make it 5-2.
  • Two minutes later, Zadorov made a bold play on the penalty kill, jumping up off a defensive faceoff to create a 2-on-1 with Teddy Blueger. A sprawling Drew Doughty partially blocked Zadorov’s pass but Blueger still got to the puck and jammed it past Cam Talbot, who had also sprawled to the ice, trying to pokecheck away a pass that never came through. While the shorthanded goal didn’t lead to a comeback, it at least ended Blueger’s 40-game goal drought, during which the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world.  
  • Shortly after Zadorov helped get the Canucks within two goals, he put them down two men by shooting the puck over the glass. Not to worry: Filip Hronek went HAM on a board battle. The clock was at 7:19 when the puck dropped for the faceoff and Hronek took the puck right to the boards for over 30 seconds before eventually freeing it up for Teddy Blueger to clear down the ice. By the time the Kings brought it back into the Canucks’ zone, the clock said 6:34. Hronek almost single-handedly killed 45 seconds of the penalty in that one battle.
  • I really didn’t like this hit by Moore on Hughes, not just because Hughes is the player the Canucks could least afford to lose heading into the playoffs. The puck is long gone by the time Moore hits Hughes in the numbers and he has no business finishing this check. It was a cowardly and craven hit.
  • Moore got a two-minute minor for the hit on Hughes, with some Canucks fans wondering why it wasn’t a five-minute major like Zadorov’s hit on Brett Howden of the Vegas Golden Knights. If the NHL wants to get that kind of hit out of the game, it probably should’ve been a major penalty. Of course, then a penalty should also have been called on Zadorov in this game when he drilled Quinton Byfield through the numbers. Instead, Zadorov didn't get any penalty at all. Honestly, any sort of consistency would be nice.
  • Unfortunately, the Canucks couldn’t capitalize on Moore’s penalty. Instead, the Kings got a shorthanded goal not long after Boeser sent a pass from Pettersson just wide of the net from the slot. Adrian Kempe burst up the right wing and took advantage of a fatigued Hughes to get a breakaway, then beat DeSmith with a low shot to make it 6-3.
  • As much as this lopsided loss looked ugly, there were the bones of a better game for the Canucks within it. Despite being hard-matched by Anze Kopitar’s line and Drew Doughty’s defence pairing, Elias Pettersson had a strong game and could have had a four-point night if the puck had bounced a little differently: he set up Boeser’s goal, had a breakaway hit the shaft of Talbot’s stick, and set up grade-A chances for Garland and Boeser on a late power play, to go with several other strong plays throughout the game. Pettersson looks like a player poised to break out in a big way.