The stars held centre stage for the Vancouver Canucks in their Western Conference first-round series victory over the St. Louis Blues, but the supporting cast also played a major role.
The Canucks used a 6-2 win Friday night to end the Blues’ reign as Stanley Cup champions, winning the best-of-seven series in six games. The last Canadian team still standing in this year’s NHL Stanley Cup playoffs now faces the Vegas Golden Knights in a series that begins Sunday under the bubble in Edmonton.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, slick forward Elias Pettersson and hard-nosed winger J.T. Miller were all instrumental in the Canucks advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
As good as they were, other players also stepped up their game.
Forward Tyler Motte, who had four goals in 34 regular season games, scored four times in the final two games against St. Louis. Jay Beagle, part of Vancouver’s shutdown line, scored his first goal of the playoffs to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead just 3:45 into the deciding game, before adding an assist on Motte’s second.
Defensive forward Brandon Sutter had three assists on Friday and five points in the playoffs. Defenceman Troy Stecher, who will never be confused with Bobby Orr, had two goals and an assist in the series. Forward Jake Virtanen, who started the post-season watching from the press box, scored a big goal and was on the ice in the final dying minutes of Game 5.
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“You need production up and down the lineup, especially in the playoffs,” said Motte, the 121st pick in the 2013 draft. “Every game is going to be a battle. For us to contribute that way, it was important for us.”
Head coach Travis Green said dispatching the Blues was a team effort.
“To beat a team like that or have success in the playoffs, you’ve got to have contributions throughout your lineup,” said Green, who is coaching in his first NHL playoffs. “It seems with our team, every night someone is stepping up and we’re always getting a team effort. That’s what I love about our team.”
Vegas dispatched Chicago in 5 games
The Canucks will have little time to celebrate before facing the Knights, who won their opening-round series against Chicago in five games, three of which were decided by one goal.
The Knights were third in the West when the NHL season was paused due to COVID-19 with a 39-24-8 record in 71 games for 86 points. The Canucks were seventh with a 36-27-6 record for 78 points in 69 games.
The teams played twice in December. The Knights won the first game 6-3 in Las Vegas, then the Canucks won four nights later, 5-4 in overtime in Vancouver. Overall, Vancouver has a 2-7-1 record against Vegas.
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Vegas wingers Mark Stone and Alex Tuch and defenceman Shea Theodore have all scored four goals in eight playoff games.
“We’ll have our hands full, but we will be ready to go,” Green said.
Markstrom, one of 10 Canucks making their NHL playoff debut, has been the backbone of Vancouver’s success. His 2.44 goals-against average and .929 save percentage is second in the playoffs.
His jaw-dropping save off a Robert Thomas shot in Game 5, with the Blues leading 3-1, might have saved the season for the Canucks. Vancouver battled back to win the game 4-3 to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
Pettersson has been showing why he’s last year’s top rookie. His two assists on Friday moved him into a tie for the playoff scoring lead with four goals and 13 points.
“He understands the game,” Green said. “He understands certain parts of the rink that are important to winning.”
Hughes, nominated for this year’s Calder Trophy, has been playing like a veteran on the blue line. He’s made big defensive plays and leads all rookies with 10 points (one goal, nine assists).
Beagle, who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, said he sees similarities between that group and this year’s young Canucks.
“This team is a special and dangerous team,” he said. “We have a lot of heart and a lot of will in the locker room. It makes for a great hockey team.
“When we stick to our game, we are a dangerous team. Now we have to look to do it again.”