Canucks notebook: Elias Pettersson’s struggles and Thatcher Demko’s progress

It all comes down to this.

It’s the Vancouver Canucks and their stout defensive form. It’s Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the high-flying Edmonton Oilers.

It’s now a best-of-three series to decide which Canadian team will be the last one left standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The stakes in Game 5 are enormous, and obvious. And so is the leverage swing of Thursday night’s game. In the annals of NHL playoff history, teams that win Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead go on to win the series over 79 percent of the time.

It’s easy to cast the Canucks as a team playing with house money. People didn’t expect them to be here before this season, certainly not in comparison with an Oilers outfit that entered the year as a prohibitive Stanley Cup favourite.

To frame it in that manner, however, would be to miss how rarely these types of opportunities actually present themselves. There are no guarantees in life, or in hockey. And this team — with a wash of pending free agents, nearly all of whom have enhanced their perceived value around the NHL — won’t be easy to keep together beyond this season.

Vancouver has proven a lot to the hockey world in this postseason. Twelve months ago, this core group hadn’t won together consistently. Now, they’re clutch. A team that seems nearly impossible to kill, no matter how insurmountable their opponents’ third-period leads appear to be.

Prior to the season, this was the team that needed “everything to go right” to make the playoffs. Now they’re the team that almost pushed the Oilers to the brink in Game 4, despite their second leading scorer struggling immensely, their first-choice-matchup left-side defender out of the lineup with suspension and their third-string goaltender in net.

What happens next will be hockey history, and when two teams are playing for history, there’s no such thing as house money.

This is what it’s all about. A series in which both teams feel like they’re on the precipice of greatness after every win, and on the precipice of calamity after each loss. A series pitting Edmonton’s ability to control the game and generate scoring chances against the Canucks’ ability to muddy up every contest so that it’s decided by a single shot, a single bounce, a single stomach-in-your-throat moment with the potential to define the legacy of every player, coach and executive involved.

As a massive Game 5 approaches, let’s empty the notebook and unpack a couple of hot-button topics involving two of Vancouver’s biggest stars.

Elias Pettersson’s struggles and Rick Tocchet’s gamble

When Elias Pettersson is at his best, he’s hyper-aware of all aspects of the game.

This is a player who relies on almost superhuman precision, as both a shooter and playmaker, to produce at the NHL level. And though it’s easy to forget given this prolonged run of subpar form, for most of his career, he hasn’t just produced, he’s cleaned up.

Pettersson isn’t the biggest or most physically assertive player and he’s not the fastest or most powerful skater. He leans on his unique combination of preposterous skill and hockey IQ to outthink and out-execute his opponents.

It goes without saying that we haven’t seen him do this enough lately. And Rick Tocchet’s commentary on Pettersson’s game — implying heavily that he’s among the Canucks’ passengers following the Game 4 loss in Edmonton on Tuesday night and opining “I don’t know what to say,” when asked about the state of Pettersson’s game — has put Pettersson’s evident struggles front and centre.

“I think it sends a message to the group that we all need to do better, and obviously myself, I can be better,” was Pettersson’s reaction on Wednesday when asked by the media about Tocchet’s pointed commentary. “I’m trying out there, maybe not going the best way right now, but I’m trying and I want to win.”

Tocchet’s comments may have turned the heat up, but make no mistake, the dial was already cranked to the max on Pettersson scrutiny in the Vancouver market.

So on Wednesday, Pettersson met with the media. Travelling back from Edmonton, I wasn’t able to attend the availability, but watching it, and the way Pettersson represented himself, I thought about one of the aspects of Pettersson that has always fascinated me.

When Pettersson has spent a prolonged stretch of games struggling in his career — and really, the first half of the 2021-22 campaign is the only analogy to what we’ve seen the past few months — I’ve often wondered whether it’s especially difficult for a player wired the way Pettersson is to work through a stretch like this. And he’s conceded in the past that it is.

Imagine how frustrating it would be to have the level of understanding and awareness that Pettersson has, and then to know with uncanny precision just how significantly you’re falling short on a shift-by-shift basis. It sounds like it would be a wildly claustrophobic experience, especially given the scrutiny of playing in this hockey market.

Throughout Pettersson’s availability on Wednesday, he was reluctant to share details about how he’s working through this. In a deeply impersonal environment, he wasn’t insightful, nor was he overly defiant. Watching the clip, I got the sense he was just keen to get through it and move forward.

“I’m going through a little adversity and trying to play well, it isn’t going my way,” Pettersson said. “At the end of the day, what can I do? I’m just trying to play the next game better and not dwell on bad games.”

He later added, when asked about his confidence level, that “it’s challenging (to stay confident), but I like challenges. I like to think I’ve always answered them.”

The only topic Pettersson really expanded on was when he was asked if it might help if he were playing with different linemates. In Game 4, for example, Pettersson started the game with a pair of wingers in Ilya Mikheyev and Sam Lafferty who have combined for just four goals across their last 75 games dating back to Jan. 15.

“Yeah, maybe it could help, but also at the end of the day, I can only focus on what I can do,” was Pettersson’s response. “I want to be better. I want to be the difference-maker. It hasn’t gone the way I want it (to), but I can’t dwell on it too much. We have a game tomorrow. I’m going to try and do my best. And yeah, that’s where my head’s at.”

It was interesting that Tocchet echoed that sentiment in his own availability on Wednesday.

“All fairness to him, I’m not sure he’s sometimes getting the help he needs,” said Tocchet, when asked about Pettersson’s linemates. “Saying that, I still think he can drive play a little bit better. I think when the puck comes he can move his feet and be more dynamic, he’s got the skill set.”

I found this part of the availability — from both star player and head coach — to be the most telling.

When a coach calls out a specific player, or a group of “passengers,” they’re taking on some risk. It’s a risk Tocchet seems to have great feel for. There’s little doubt that every time he’s challenged this Canucks team all season, he’s elicited the desired response.

Still, publicly calling out a player who clearly hasn’t been placed in a favourable environment to produce can be a difficult game — especially when both the player in question and the coach admitted the following day that, yes, that’s definitely part of what’s happening, even if that isn’t the full story.



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We’ll see on Thursday night how the Canucks and how Pettersson specifically respond. It’s vital for Vancouver’s chances in this series that they get more from their second leading scorer, especially given that Pettersson’s primary five-on-five matchup has been Ryan McLeod and the Oilers’ bottom six.

In those minutes, Vancouver has yet to generate a goal against what should be the soft underbelly of the Edmonton lineup.

If Vancouver can’t make the Oilers pay in those minutes when McDavid and Draisaitl take a breather, winning two of the next three games and advancing to the Western Conference final is going to be extremely difficult.

Tocchet provided a positive update on the status of Canucks starting goaltender Thatcher Demko on Wednesday.

He was asked if Demko, who injured his knee in Game 1 of the Canucks’ first-round series against the Nashville Predators, might be an option to start Game 6 or Game 7, if necessary.

“I don’t know if I want to go that far,” Tocchet said. “All I know is that he’s improved immensely the last 72 hours … He’s really, the last two or three days, made some strides, big strides (toward getting better).”

This update matches what I witnessed when watching Demko put in work with Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark in Edmonton after the club’s optional morning skate ahead of Game 4 on Tuesday.

While working on drills with Clark and not facing shots from NHL shooters, as the club’s scratches put in work on Nikita Tolopilo at the other end in a more dynamic environment, Demko could be seen dropping into his butterfly stance and moving laterally on the ice and into his post.

That’s a pretty strenuous set of movements from the perspective of a goaltender’s knees and hips.

If Demko is working through these sorts of advanced movements and then reacting well enough physically the next day for Tocchet to provide an optimistic update on his timeline, that’s a very promising sign.

Demko still hasn’t joined his teammates for practice. I haven’t yet seen him take part in drills in a more dynamic shooting environment with Canucks scratches and black aces yet, either.

This bears monitoring. If Demko is really going to be an option for Game 6 on Saturday — or more conservatively, for a Game 7 if necessary on Monday — he will start hitting some crucial benchmarks in the next 24 to 48 hours.

You’d think the Canucks would want Demko to at least test the knee in a more dynamic practice environment on Thursday or Friday at the latest, and then rejoin the team for at least one full practice before being cleared.

If Demko starts to hit these benchmarks this week, the Canucks could have a difficult decision on their hands, especially given the way Arturs Silovs has performed.

(Photo of Elias Pettersson facing off against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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