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I Watched This Game: Canucks lose battles and the war against the Kings

"I don’t think that we gave them a lot but what we gave them was egregious," said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet.
The Vancouver Canucks were repeatedly frustrated by the Los Angeles Kings' neutral zone trap in a 5-1 loss.

Thursday night’s game between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings could be a first-round playoff preview, which is a horrifying thought.

That’s not because the Canucks lost to the Kings by an ugly 5-1 score but because the Kings play the most stultifyingly boring brand of hockey in the NHL. The Kings slow the game down to a snail’s pace and clog up the ice like hair in a shower drain. Ironically, Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood, is where entertainment goes to die.

On Thursday, the Canucks allowed the Kings to dictate the pace. The Kings came into the Canucks’ home rink and controlled the game right from puck drop, never letting the Canucks play the way they wanted to play. Frankly, the Canucks are talented enough that that shouldn’t happen. 

“I mean, obviously they have their trap that they do,” said Quinn Hughes, “but I think that on our best day, we should be able to figure out how to get through that.”

There was one key to the game in the eyes of head coach Rick Tocchet, one reason why the Kings dictated the game instead of the Canucks.

“That game was about winning puck battles,” said Tocchet. “They won more than us.”

A multitude of issues led to those lost puck battles, a couple of which Tocchet highlighted, like failing to establish body position — “I hate to say mind-boggling, but for some reason we have our backs against the wall. You’ve got to be in front of the [puck].” 

But the end result was that the Kings never had to adjust to the way the Canucks played because the Canucks only got the puck when they were in a position that the Kings wanted them to be: in their own end of the ice, trying to move up through a smothering Kings trap in the neutral zone.

“When they get set into that 1-3-1, a lot of times you’re skating the puck right into somebody,” said Ian Cole. “They make you dump it and they have that one guy sitting way back for a clean breakout. We need to figure out a way to play against these guys. This is a good team; there’s a high probability we see them — well, certainly next week but also come playoff time.”

That was the gameplan for the Kings: disrupt the Canucks’ ability to skate the puck up ice.

“That's what we're best at, when we're frustrating teams like that, especially their top talent, made it tough for them to come through the neutral zone,” said Kings goaltender Cam Talbot. “They had to give up the puck a lot and that's not something they'd like to do. They carry the puck and create off the rush and we didn't really allow them to do that tonight, so you could definitely sense the frustration whenever they had to give up the puck and go get it.”

When you’re constantly having to dump the puck in and you’re not winning any of the puck battles to get it back, this is what you get: one of the ugliest games of the season. I cursed the day I was born with such good eyesight when I watched this game.

  • This was a rough game for Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek, who started the game on separate pairings, ended it on the same pairing, and were bad either way. Those two have been dominant together this season and it was very evident how dependent the Canucks are on Hughes to dictate the game from the backend. When he struggles, the entire team struggles.
  • “I don’t care who they’re playing with, you’ve got to be able to defend,” said Tocchet of Hughes and Hronek. “Maybe we’re playing them too much but they’ve got to defend better.”
  • The Kings’ opening goal was a disasterpiece from the Canucks. It started with a slow line change as J.T. Miller coasted to the bench, not realizing the Kings were breaking up ice behind him. That left everyone out of sorts on the backcheck and meant Sam Lafferty was late off the bench and unable to get to Drew Doughty before he blasted a one-timer inside the far post.
  • “The change was bad and then obviously our coverage sucked, even though we had people there,” said Tocchet. “Those things just can’t happen. They can happen once in a while, I get it, but they’ve just been happening too frequently right now.”
  • Noah Juulsen killed a guy. He should find himself a safe house or a relative close by and lay low for a while because he’s probably wanted for murder. Alex Laferriere felt that one in his bones.
  • For the record, Elias Pettersson started off his postgame media scrum by saying, “I’m talking about this game only,” which is itself a comment on the ongoing contract saga that is taking place off the ice. Unfortunately, that meant the only question remaining for Pettersson was about his horrible turnover on the Kings’ second goal. He might have preferred a question about his contract.
  • “I don’t remember their second one,” said Pettersson but recognition flickered in his eyes when the word “turnover” was mentioned. “Oh, yeah. I was gonna pass to [Tyler] Myers, they got a stick on it. I missed my pass to Myers and they kept the puck in the zone.”
  • The issue wasn’t just that Pettersson turned the puck over but that he completely missed picking up his check, Anze Kopitar, in the aftermath. The wide-open Kopitar stepped into the puck and sent it off the far post and in.
  • “I’m sure he wanted that one back,” said Tocchet. “He threw it away. That’s the stuff that usually he doesn’t do. He holds onto it, makes the right play. He’s struggling in certain parts of his game but he’ll come out of it. He’s too good of a player not to come out of it.”
  • Two of the Canucks’ best chances came with their two tallest defencemen jumping up in the play, leading to their two shortest forwards hitting the post. Nikita Zadorov rushed in for one chance, then dropped the puck to Nils Höglander for an open net but he could only hit the outside of the post. Later, Tyler Myers nearly tucked in a wraparound before Conor Garland sent the rebound off the outside of the post himself. With that, the world was robbed of two glorious short-guy/tall-guy hockey hugs.
  • The Canucks also skied several of their chances, sending the puck sailing over the net. “That’s one thing we’ve got to correct, we’re shooting so high,” said Tocchet. “I think if we just correct about two or three things, get some guys getting their confidence back…we’re in a bit of a funk right now and we gotta get out of it.”
  • The Canucks’ split-up power play came up with their lone goal in the third period. Brock Boeser made a heads-up play to read the Kings’ penalty kill coverage, as he saw that the slot wasn’t available so shimmied his way back inside the left faceoff circle. That’s where J.T. Miller hit him with the cross-seam pass that Boeser’s soft hands cradled, then rocked past Talbot’s glove.
  • The Kings’ power play responded to restore the two-goal lead on an extremely questionable penalty, as is tradition. Ian Cole completely misread the play, expecting Kopitar to throw the puck down low behind the net to Kevin Fiala. Instead, he threw the puck backdoor to Fiala for a tap-in goal. Seems like Cole could use Cole’s Notes if he’s going to misread things that badly.
  • “I think the probability that he made that play was quite low,” said Cole. “You’re trying to read and make decisions as best you can. I thought the chances of him rimming that down below to Fiala behind the net was quite high, so I went to cut it off. He made a nice play — Fiala didn’t even see it until it hit his stick.”
  • Things went off the rails from there. The Kings’ fourth goal was like dead animal organs: offal. Pettersson lost a puck battle to Kopitar below the Kings goal line, then Hughes lost a battle on a risky pinch, and then Boeser stopped skating on the resultant 3-on-2 rush the other way. That meant it was all too easy for Brandt Clarke to get to the net and deke around Thatcher Demko.
  • “I don’t think that we gave them a lot but what we gave them was egregious,” said Tocchet. “Coverage plays, pinching at the wrong time, the PK anticipated when he should have just stayed in front of the net and knocked the puck down. They’re egregious…they didn’t have many chances but they’re egregious chances.”
  • Then it was J.T. Miller’s turn for an egregious turnover, as he blindly threw a backhand pass into the middle of the ice at the blue line, then got beat up the ice by Trevor Moore for a breakaway to make it 5-1. This wasn’t a game where just a few players struggled; everyone took a ride on the struggle bus. 
  • “Us coaches gotta do a better job,” said Tocchet. “The leadership group has to make sure that they stick together and do a good job. And it’s individuals themselves, look at themselves and say, ‘Hey, what can I do better.’ So, it’s a collective thing, it’s an organizational thing.”
  • Fortunately, this game took place on February 29 and nothing that happens on Leap Day counts — real life is for March — so this game didn't affect the standings. Wait, what's that? Hm, I'm being told by my producer that isn't the case and that the Canucks are now fourth in the NHL in points and fifth in points percentage. Oh.


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