The Golden Knights and Canucks played only twice in the regular season, splitting the contests both staged in December. That seems like decades ago in pandemic time, so this series will surely surprise us.
What we learned in the first round: The Canucks went from potential contender to actual contender. Their qualification round win over the Minnesota Wild was proof of concept: That their talented offensive group could overcome a solid defensive team at 5-on-5, use the power play to put goals on the board and have goalie Jacob Markstrom do the rest. The formula was reapplied in their six-game series win over the St. Louis Blues. They weren’t always the best team in the series, but they certainly were the most animated. Their power play went 7-for-13 in their wins and 0-for-10 in their losses. Markstrom was the best goalie in the series. In summary, St. Louis: tired; Vancouver: wired.
The Golden Knights didn’t offer any surprises in the first round, and that’s fine: They rolled four lines, had strong two-way play and exhibited their goaltending depth in a five-game series win against Chicago. In eight playoff games, the Knights have a 62.11% expected goals percentage at 5-on-5, which is best in the league. This is a Vancouver team that excels at generating offense against a Vegas team that can match that output, while playing championship-level defense. And both teams can get a little nasty.
First line: The Canucks’ line of Elias Pettersson with Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller might win the prize for most creative of the postseason, thanks to Pettersson’s offensive invention. They didn’t dominate (49.48% expected goals percentage), but they’ve outscored their opponents 4-1 at even strength. Vegas has two lines that could be considered their best: Paul Stastny with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, along with William Karlsson with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Based on ice time, we’ll go with the latter group as their top line. They can score, but more importantly they can defend, as Karlsson and Stone are among the league’s best two-way forwards. Advantage: Tie
Forward depth: It’s not the Marchessault line, but Vancouver’s second line of Bo Horvat, Loui Eriksson and Tanner Pearson has been strong. With the injured Tyler Toffoli nearing his return, it’ll be interesting to see on which line coach Travis Green slots him. Both teams have solid depth behind those featured lines. In Vancouver’s case, the play of their bottom six helped turn the series against St. Louis: Tyler Motte (four goals), Antoine Roussel (four points), Jake Virtanen and Jay Beagle, who scored the opening goal in Game 6. Brandon Sutter is also in the mix. The Knights’ third line is anchored by Alex Tuch (four goals), one of the true X factors in the postseason. He can be a physical force and a difference maker. He’s usually skating with Nick Cousins and Nicolas Roy. Ryan Reaves and William Carrier are as effective a fourth-line duo as you’ll find. Vegas’ ace in the hole? Chandler Stephenson, who can play up and down the lineup. (Frankly, the best version of their top line might be the one with Stephenson on it.) Advantage: Golden Knights
Defense: The Canucks’ third-leading scorer is a rookie defenseman. Calder Trophy finalist Quinn Hughes has 10 points in the postseason, skating with veteran Chris Tanev. Seven of those points have come on the power play, but Hughes is seeing more defensive assignments after being sheltered in the qualification round. Alexander Edler and Troy Stecher have chipped in offensively but have given up their share defensively (46.9% in expected goals percentage). The team hopes Tyler Myers is available this round after suffering a slightly separated shoulder. Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg are also in the mix. For Vegas, trade deadline acquisitions Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore have created one of the playoffs’ better pairings. Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt continue to be a steady duo. Nick Holden and Zach Whitecloud — the Golden Knights’ own rookie defenseman — have also been effective. Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill are waiting in the wings. Advantage: Tie
Goaltending: Robin Lehner had the crease in four of five games against the Blackhawks. He’s 5-1 in the playoffs but hasn’t quite been at his best yet (minus-2.26 goals saved above average). Marc-Andre Fleury calmed some fears about his game with a strong win over Chicago. But Markstrom has been incredible in this postseason with a plus-4.05 goals saved above average (fourth best in the playoffs). He’s 7-3 with a .929 save percentage. If Lehner gets the crease again, it’ll be a battle between two unrestricted free agents showing off in the spotlight. On paper, Vegas has the advantage here. But in the playoffs so far, Markstrom’s been the better goalie. Advantage: Canucks
Coaching: The strange journey of Peter DeBoer continues. He was fired by the Sharks and then hired by the Golden Knights to replace Gerard Gallant; in other words, taking over for the first coach in franchise history, as one of the franchise’s most notable villains during his time in San Jose. He has them playing well, has expertly juggled the lineup and has much more playoff experience than his counterpart. The days of calling Travis Green underrated are over. He has done a remarkable job managing this lineup, and in keeping a young team in line after the Blues looked like they might be taking over the series. Advantage: Golden Knights
Special teams: The Canucks are clicking at 26.2% on the power play in 10 games, while the Knights converted at 19.1%. But Vegas has the advantage on the penalty kill, converted at an 86.4% rate compared to a respectable 81.0% for the Canucks. Special teams are going to be an enormous factor here, and the Knights may have an advantage in their discipline: At 2.93 penalties per 60 minutes, Vegas is the second-least penalized team in the postseason. Vancouver has drawn more (5.51) than anyone still playing. So that’s a key development to watch. Advantage: Canucks
Prediction: Golden Knights in six. The Canucks are going to be a very tough out. GM Jim Benning has stealthily created a roster with the kind of balance — offense, defense and sandpaper — you want in a contender. They’ve upped their defensive game considerably. They were better than Minnesota. They caught the Blues flat-footed, undermanned and with an imploding goaltender. They get Vegas at time when the Knights looked composed, calculated and playing considerably well, with room for improvement. The series could come down to who wins the battle between the top two lines. We’ll take Vegas in that battle to advance, but the Canucks are primed for another upset.