The Vancouver Canucks’ 5-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday was a harsh reality check. After all, the St. Louis Blues had looked slow and complacent throughout the entire season. Their expected goal share dipped from 53.6% (5th) in 2018-19 to 49.9% (17th) in 2019-20, so it was only a matter of time before their warts surfaced against stiffer competition. The Golden Knights, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that topped the league in xGF% (56.1) this year, would represent a true measuring stick—and the Canucks didn’t stack up whatsoever in Game 1 of their second-round series.
By the end of that drudging, it was clear that Vegas shares none of the Blues’ nonchalance. Peter DeBoer’s troops are a different beast: fast, cohesive, suffocating, hyper-focused.
Perhaps this is the lesson Vancouver will need to learn the hard way.
While the Canucks may well lose this matchup—maybe even in decisive fashion—they showed tremendous resiliency to climb back into the fight with a 5-2 win on Tuesday night. And just as Vancouver had hoped when it selected Elias Pettersson fifth overall in the 2017 draft, it was the team’s cornerstone at center who led the charge.
Not even 90 seconds in, the 21-year-old phenom put his stamp on the game with a stunning rush:
He receives a pass inside his blue line and navigates the puck pressure that had previously appeared so oppressive. He then rounds the net and whips a pass to Tyler Toffoli for the opening tally. The feel required to curl that setup through Alec Martinez—with Shea Theodore on his back, no less—is the stuff of superstars. The feed is so remarkable that it takes Toffoli an additional beat to realize he has a gaping net to shoot into.
Pettersson would add to his highlight reel in the second period to put the Canucks ahead 3-1. After winning the offensive zone draw, Pettersson slips into a quiet area and receives a pass from Alexander Edler. Sensing that he has a hair more space than he normally would, the Swede takes that extra half-second to get Robin Lehner leaning one way and dekes him out of his jockstrap:
These weren’t isolated bursts either.
As a line, Pettersson, Toffoli and Tanner Pearson controlled 60.9% of the shot attempts, 58.3% of the scoring chances and 71.4% of the high-danger opportunities for an expected goal share of 72.4% at 5-on-5. As a whole, the Canucks posted a putrid 44.0 xGF%. Even though he faced Vegas’ top two forward units and defensive pairs throughout the evening, Pettersson carried the mail in Game 2.
Over the entire playoffs, the Swede now ranks first on his team in CF% (52.3) and boasts a 62.5 GF% while facing the opposition’s best on a nightly basis. He sits second behind Nathan MacKinnon in league scoring and leads Vancouver in both even-strength and power-play production. And he’s managed to find the scoreboard with five different line combinations. Granted, Toffoli’s return from injury adds a welcome dose of finish to the Canucks’ lineup, but it remains obvious that Pettersson is the straw that stirs the drink.
In the postseason, which annually separates the men from the boys, this fresh-faced 176-pound upstart is showing that he can hang with the best. In fact, no Canuck has ever enjoyed a stronger start to their playoff career:
Most points thru first 12 playoff games with the #Canucks
Elias Pettersson 16 (3 points thru 2 periods)
Mikael Samuelsson 15
Geoff Courtnall 14
Trevor Linden 13
Thomas Gradin 13
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) August 26, 2020
Better yet, he isn’t content to merely contribute on offense. He’s committed to helping his team in every phase of the game, as his three-zone impact and level of engagement in the trenches continue to improve. Despite the opposition knocking him down repeatedly, he keeps getting up and delivering equal measures of sizzle and grunt work.
Immediately following his first-period assist, he picks off a pass in the neutral zone and fends off a determined Rielly Smith to launch Vancouver’s counterattack:
After his second-period goal, he provides positional support inside his end to Edler, pokes the puck off sniper Max Pacioretty’s stick and angles his body to afford Edler a clean look at a clearance:
There are seasoned blueliners who struggle in such one-on-one scenarios, but Pettersson makes it look like a walk in the park.
Notions of grit and guts are often misunderstood. Winning hockey is not about laying opponents out with massive hits (although those are useful). It’s about playing through the hooking, the holding, the interference and the net-front battles. It’s about proving that you can pass the test of wills. Where many wunderkinds struggle with the feverish pace and bruising physicality of the playoffs, Pettersson is thriving in his first postseason appearance. The kid already looks so composed in the thick of the action. He’s certainly not as sturdy as you’d like, but he offsets that with pure talent, hockey IQ and a willingness to dig in when he has to.
Unlike Quinn Hughes on the back end, Pettersson doesn’t seem affected by Vegas’ superhuman tenacity or the bigger stage. Well, at least not negatively. He’s producing at a higher rate and competing more vigorously than he ever has in hopes of propelling his club past a second straight daunting opponent.
While he may fall short against this deep and well-coached Golden Knights squad, he’s nevertheless announcing his presence as a bona fide superstar.