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Canucks need big guns to step up in Game 5


Vancouver’s big guns need to step up.

A bit of a paraphrase to be sure, but that was the message head coach Rick Tocchet was sending after the Oilers tied the series at two apiece on Tuesday night.

Vancouver has done plenty of good things in this matchup so far, chief among them exposing the weak pockets of the Oilers’ lineup during the early parts of this series.

On that point, when we looked at the series after the first three games, I felt the Oilers needed to split up the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing, a duo all too comfortable with playing without the puck and incapable of engineering the transition game that makes this Oilers forward group so deadly.

Edmonton coach Kris Knoblauch didn’t waste any time resetting his blueline deployment, and it created effectiveness across the lineup – both Nurse and Ceci had strong games in Game 4 on different pairings, and the Oilers team as a whole dominated the puck for most of the night.

With this series heading back to British Columbia for Game 5, Tocchet is in a similar position. Vancouver’s issue is in stark contrast to that of Edmonton in this series: they may be effective at attacking Edmonton’s depth players, but the top of their lineup is getting smoked, and in particular against the Oilers’ best.

It goes without saying that many players across the league lose in their head-to-head minutes with Connor McDavid and company. But the McDavid minutes (he’s played primarily with the Evan Bouchard pairing behind him) have been an absolute one-sided affair – Vancouver’s getting outshot 118 to 56 (-62) there, and is 0-for-4 in keeping the McDavid line off the scoreboard at even strength.

This is a major issue across the Vancouver lineup. If you look at how shots have flowed in all of the individual player matchups, there is a clear bifurcation when the top cut of the Oilers’ lineup is on the ice, and it doesn’t matter who they are facing:


Look at how staggering those splits are. Setting aside an all-time goaltending heater, it’s difficult to win games when you are outshot and outchanced by that magnitude, especially against high-end players who have the playmaking and shooting talent to turn those opportunities into goals.

Canucks centre Elias Pettersson has rightfully drawn criticism here, in part because he’s the team’s most skilled player, and in part because the play has been disappointing by both the numbers and the eye test.

I believe at least some of Pettersson’s struggles have to do with him being fed into the McDavid blender, and the above table is why. If you’ve been pulling your hair out while watching Pettersson’s punchless offence and persistent defensive zone play, at least consider that 37 per cent of his minutes have been matched up head-to-head with McDavid. No one who has played meaningful minutes against that line has fared any better.

That’s why I imagine we may see some lineup tinkering by Vancouver in advance of Game 5. On Tuesday, Tocchet played J.T. Miller with Pius Suter and Brock Boeser, Garland with Elias Lindholm and Dakota Joshua, and Pettersson with Sam Lafferty and Ilya Mikheyev.

Spreading your talent across the lineup usually makes sense, but I do wonder about Vancouver’s approach in this series. Not only are each of these lines being fed to the McDavid meat grinder, but I fear that after Edmonton’s Game 4 blueline overhaul, none of these lines are dominant enough to offset those lost minutes and beat up on the depth of the Oilers.

At any rate, with last change on Thursday night, keep an eye on the Vancouver coaching staff and what changes they make from a deployment standpoint.

I don’t foresee Tocchet having an appetite to watch such a one-sided affair at even strength for much longer, and it’s hard to imagine Vancouver advancing deeper into the playoffs without getting their best weapons – starting with Pettersson – going.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference