After avoiding disaster vs. Golden Knights, ‘belief is the word’ for Canucks

VANCOUVER – On paper, the Vegas Golden Knights had the better team. On the ice, the Vancouver Canucks had the best player. The better goalie, too.

An all-world night for Elias Pettersson ended with teammate Quinn Hughes scoring 51 seconds into overtime as the Canucks survived a third-period collapse to beat the Golden Knights 5-4 in overtime.

The game had hefty playoff implications for both teams – the win allows the Canucks to maintain their improbable chase for a Stanley Cup berth – and mirrored the emotional tilt-a-whirl of Vancouver’s National Hockey League season.

The Canucks outscored the Knights 3-1 in the second period with Pettersson, the resurgent star who is probably playing his best hockey since bursting upon the NHL four years ago, orchestrating all three goals. But they failed to hold a two-goal lead in the third period when Metro Vancouver native Shea Theodore scored twice, including a scorcher with 42 seconds remaining in regulation and Vegas skating six-against-five.

But the Canucks, whose four straight overtime losses included a 3-2 setback against the Golden Knights in Rogers Arena nine days earlier, won it in the extra session when Vegas goalie Robin Lehner couldn’t locate the puck after a save on Conor Garland. Hughes found it at his feet from him and calmly skated it away from Lehner before flipping into the open net.

“Devastating is not the word but it was disappointing for sure,” Hughes said of blowing the third-period lead. “Everyone knew how important the game was. It was unfortunate, but. . . there’s been no quit in our group the whole year. So I think, from my perspective, the only thing I was nervous about was our overtimes haven’t been great recently. So that was the only thing I was thinking of, trying to have a good shift.”

Hughes’ shift was the Canucks’ second one in OT, which was significant because the Golden Knights were unable to change as Vancouver maintained possession while getting fresh players on to the ice. Garland accelerated past Theodore to create his chance on Lehner, and Hughes was completely unchecked on the rebound.

“It was really important,” Hughes, who missed two games last week with an undisclosed non-COVID illness, said after scoring his biggest regular-season goal as a Canuck. “We know where they are in the standings and where we are. It would have been nice to get it in regulation but at the end of the day, we still got two points and that’s what we wanted to do.”

With Western Conference wildcard teams, the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators, each winning 1-0 on Tuesday, the Canucks remain six points adrift of a playoff spot with eight games to go. But Vancouver crept within three points of Vegas, and moved to a point in front of the Winnipeg Jets in the mosh pit.

“It’s pretty clear what we’ve got to do,” Pettersson said. “We’ve still got to win of course. We feel good now; we’ve got four in a row. But it doesn’t mean (crap) — I couldn’t find another word — if we don’t continue on this wave and play good hockey. We’re still behind, we’ve still got win games. And we’re just thinking of next one.”

On a night when long-injured Knight Mark Stone played his first game since Feb. 8, one game after Max Pacioretty returned from injury, nobody played better than Pettersson.

The 23-year-old, who has roared back from a miserable start to the season, set up Vasily Podkolzin with a power-play slap-pass that broke a 1-1 tie at 1:27 of the second period. He scored himself at 3:16 when Lehner had difficulty with the Canuck’s shot from the slot, then allowed the puck to trickle over the line off the skate of Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud.

But Pettersson’s best play, one of his most sublime setups all season, came on a two-on-one later in the period after Michael Amadio’s deflection had cut the lead to 3-2. Pettersson anticipated a Vegas pass in the neutral zone to create the outnumbered rush, skated untouched into the imposing shadow of Lehner before fooling everyone except teammate Brad Richardson with a goalmouth dish and 4-2 lead.

“The closer I got to the goal, the bigger Lehner looked,” Pettersson said, “so I was lucky to find Richardson.”

After a wrist injury ended his season last March, Pettersson began this season with just three goals and 10 points in his first 22 games. In 26 games since January, he has 15 goals and 35 points and has been fully engaged physically.

Is this the best he has played?

“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Maybe it’s my best hockey now, but I’m just trying to play my best every shift. Create, play hard. And of course, lately I’ve been scoring some points, which is great.”

There were many good Canucks on Tuesday.

Captain Bo Horvat had a goal and assist. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson logged 25:50 of ice time and was plus-one. Podkolzin and Alex Chiasson were excellent again in elevated roles created by injuries, and JT Miller had just a single assist but outplayed Jack Eichel in a head-to-head matchup.

Goalie Thatcher Demko finished with 41 saves as Vancouver was outshot 45-27.

Since coach Bruce Boudreau first talked to reporters about the time he was with the Washington Capitals, back in 2008, when his team went 11-1 in its last 12 games to dive into the final playoff spot, the Canucks are 4-0. And they may need to go at least another 7-1 to make it.

“I think that we’ve always thought we could do it,” Hughes said. “And I mean, we’ve got eight games left. It’s exciting. We wanted to be in it, and it’s hard to be in with the way we started (the season 6-14-2).

“It definitely feels like something we could do. I still like it, don’t want to say it’s a stretch, but we have a lot of games we need to win. Belief is the word, I would say. That’s what we keep using in the room.”

The Canucks play the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.

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