Canucks’ 10 keys to winning Game 2: J.T. Miller, Elias Lindholm and the power play

Game 1 on Sunday felt something like magic.

The unlikely playoff hero. The pure pandemonium in the building. The party atmosphere outside the arena.

For a city and a franchise that has been outside the playoff picture looking in for nine years, Game 1 was an opportunity to exhale — and to enjoy the pressure and intensity of Stanley Cup playoff hockey once more.

The excitement of the Vancouver Canucks’ Game 1 victory over the Nashville Predators will fade promptly when the puck drops on Game 2 Tuesday night at Rogers Arena. There’s still a lot of work remaining in this series; Game 1 was tightly contested and only narrowly won, and a loss in Game 2 will still cost Vancouver its home-ice advantage.

Having chewed over, considered and rewatched portions of Game 1 on Monday, your team at The Athletic’s Vancouver bureau wanted to spotlight seven key observations from the opening game, which provide something of a roadmap for what the Canucks will need to continue to do in Game 2 if they’re going to take a stranglehold on this first-round series against Nashville.

Win at the top of the lineup

Especially in the first 40 minutes of Game 1, the Canucks pulverized the Predators territorially with their top line and top pair on the ice — and especially when their top pair and top line were on the ice together.

Between J.T. Miller’s line and Quinn Hughes’ pair, Vancouver controlled play handily and manufactured the key game-tying goal in the third period. The Predators fared better down the lineup, but at the apex of both teams’ rosters, Vancouver’s best were superior to Nashville’s best in Game 1, and that edge mattered.

If that edge can prove durable and can be maintained in Game 2, this series tilts significantly in Vancouver’s favour at five-on-five. And as the series goes along and the whistles are ritualistically swallowed as the stakes amp up, an annual tradition in the NHL, Vancouver’s advantage could be decisive.

The O’Reilly soft match

The Predators’ vaunted top line wasn’t as poor as their minus-3 number would indicate. Certainly, the trio of Ryan O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist and Filip Forsberg weren’t porous defensively as much as they were unlucky, and we should expect more of them as this series goes along.

Where the O’Reilly line legitimately did struggle in Game 1, however, was in how little they generated and how rarely they were able to test Thatcher Demko. Most of Nashville’s offensive push came from their power play and their new-look second line featuring Colton Sissons, Jason Zucker and impressive youngster Luke Evangelista.

If the Predators are going to steal home-ice advantage in Game 2, they’re going to need the O’Reilly, Forsberg, Nyquist trio to generate significantly more than the one shot on goal they managed across nine-and-a-half minutes of five-on-five ice time. Meanwhile, if the Canucks can bottle up Nashville’s most dynamic forward line again, they should pad their early-series lead.

In matching up against O’Reilly, Vancouver eschewed a hard match and utilized the Elias Lindholm third line and the Miller line. Both combinations worked to limit the damage, although the Lindholm line fared narrowly better at generating against the O’Reilly line while still limiting chances the other way.

There’s no need to fix what’s broken, and the onus will be on Nashville to adjust in Game 2. But how Lindholm and Miller fare against the O’Reilly line will go a long way in determining the outcome of Tuesday night’s crucial contest.

Get the power play going

From the All-Star break to the end of the regular season, the Canucks scored three or more five-on-five goals in just two of their 19 games against playoff teams. Vancouver broke through with three five-on-five goals in Game 1 against Nashville, but this isn’t a level of even-strength production you can count on for every game in this series. In fact, the Canucks and New York Rangers are the only teams that won Game 1 without a single power-play goal.

At some point, the Canucks’ man advantage will need to contribute.

In Game 1, Vancouver’s power play only had two opportunities. It generated two shots on goal, which isn’t inspiring, but it had full puck control in the offensive zone and executed some dangerous-looking plays. On the first opportunity, for example, Brock Boeser fired a shot-pass from the left flank to the backdoor which barely missed Conor Garland.

(Courtesy Sportsnet)

That would have likely been a tap-in goal had they successfully connected. They drew up some decent plays, movement and passing on the second opportunity they had in the third period, too.

Vancouver’s power play wasn’t a concern in Game 1, but it’d be a massive boost if it could hit the scoresheet on Tuesday night.

Build on the late second-period penalty-killing success

Vancouver’s first penalty-killing shift in Game 1 was effective. Vancouver’s first over-the-boards penalty killers earned a crucial clear, as Lindholm successfully harassed the Predators in the neutral zone, turning them back on an en entry attempt and earning a partial change.

Vancouver’s second penalty killing in shift in Game 1 didn’t go so well. The Predators’ entry wasn’t clean, but with support and a couple of skilled plays, Nashville gained Vancouver’s zone and then took a can opener to Vancouver’s penalty-killing structure. A few consecutive passes later, and O’Reilly had two high-percentage options — a shot from a high-dangerous area, or an open Evangelista on the backdoor for a probable tap-in.

O’Reilly shot, the Predators took the lead and for a split second, you could imagine Vancouver’s short-handed demons might resurface and impact this series.

As Vancouver took several trips to the penalty box while the second period progressed, however, the Canucks penalty kill stepped up. The club killed two key penalties to preserve the one-goal deficit in the latter stages of the second period, and then another in the first half of the third frame. Sunday’s dramatic comeback was enabled by the work of Vancouver’s penalty killers, particularly Ian Cole who logged a team-leading 5:07 short-handed.

Vancouver needs to be just as good short-handed in Game 2 as it was in Game 1, with the exception of the massive breakdown on Nashville’s first power-play opportunity. This Predators team can be lethal with the man advantage and rolled along at a near 30 percent conversion rate on the power play from the All-Star break on.

In a physical series like this one, some scattered trips to the penalty box are inevitable. Vancouver needs to continue to be stingy on the penalty kill, lest it permits the Predators power play to claw Nashville back into this series.

Keep hunting Saros’ blocker

The level of video and data that teams can access when prescouting an opponent for a playoff series is absurd. Each side is hunting for weaknesses to exploit and in Game 1, the Canucks were repeatedly targeting Juuse Saros’ blocker side.

Lindholm’s goal, for example, was an unscreened shot from outside the tops of the offensive circles off the rush. It’s a pedestrian shot that an elite goalie like Saros should stop, but he looked awkward trying to squeeze the puck in the small area below his armpit, between his body and blocker. He again looked nervous in that armpit area between his body and blocker on Elias Pettersson’s third-period chance on the power play.

Dakota Joshua’s game-winning goal was likely a heat-of-the-moment play rather than a premeditated move, but his deft maneuver to pull the puck in and shoot against the grain on Saros’ blocker side was notable too.

Another potential weakness to exploit: NHL Network analyst Mike Kelly pointed out that Saros’ .863 save percentage on screened shots ranks 49th out of 54 qualified goaltenders this season according to Sportlogiq’s tracking. This is where Saros’ size disadvantage probably makes it tougher for him to see through traffic. Pius Suter’s tip goal was a good example of this.

The forecheck dynamic

Vancouver’s tenacious, high-pressure forecheck is the foundation for its even-strength play.

It drives defensive results because opponents find it difficult to cleanly break out, generate speed through the neutral zone and create rush chances. It also drives offensive zone time because a successful retrieval, battle or forced turnover often leads to a heavy, cycling shift for the Canucks. In the case of Joshua’s goal, which started with Lindholm’s excellent work on the forecheck, it can also pay off in the form of an immediate scoring chance.



What Dakota Joshua’s signature playoff moment signals about Canucks’ opportunity

In the first period, Nashville made smart, poised plays under pressure to exit the zone without hiccups. The Predators were compact and well-connected with the puck, whereas Vancouver’s forecheck was just a fraction off with its layers of pressure. But from the moment the puck dropped for the second period, the Canucks’ forecheck started creating problems, and from that point onward, the Predators didn’t look like they could match the Canucks’ even-strength play. Vancouver’s defensemen were pinching up the boards to keep plays alive and the wingers were taking exit passing options away.

The Canucks will slow down Nashville’s high-flying rush style and pocket a ton of offensive zone possessions in Game 2 if they can keep up the disruptive, turnover-creating forecheck that we saw from the second period onward.

Get Pettersson’s line going

Pettersson was fine, nothing more, nothing less, in Game 1 against Nashville. He was physically engaged and had a couple of chances, but his line was outshot 8-2 during his five-on-five minutes. He didn’t have a ton of even-strength puck touches and thus wasn’t an impactful enough play-driver.

Part of the reason Pettersson’s line didn’t decisively win its matchup was because his wingers weren’t contributing. Nils Höglander, playing his first career playoff game, didn’t look sharp with the puck and didn’t create enough havoc on the forecheck. Sam Lafferty made a key coverage mistake which led to Jason Zucker’s goal against. He also doesn’t have the skill and offensive IQ to hang consistently in a top-six role.

Ilya Mikheyev was promoted to Pettersson’s line midgame. He has had difficulty scoring lately but at least looked speedy and ferocious on the forecheck. Mikheyev looks like a better option than Lafferty on that line.

Pettersson and his wingers have a higher gear they need to hit.

(Photo: Bob Frid / USA Today)

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