After leading NHL play stoppage, Golden Knights and Canucks redraw swords

By Carol Schram

Last Thursday, when the NHL Players Association announced that there would be a two-day suspension of the postseason, the league showed solidarity with other professional leagues that shut down in the wake of another police shooting.

But notably, hockey’s work stoppage was championed by two teams that have played perhaps the most contentious series of the postseason — the Vegas Golden Knights and the Vancouver Canucks. It was a proverbial laying down of swords all the more notable for the intensity that was temporarily set aside for a bigger cause.

With their second-round series tied at 1-1, and after a Game 1 that featured nearly 100 hits, the two teams led the decision made by all eight remaining NHL playoff teams to suspend games for two days in recognition of racial injustice and the desire to foster a more inclusive environment in the predominantly white sport of hockey. “Black and Brown communities continue to face real, painful experiences,” the league and players’ union said in a joint statement.”

The NHL’s postponements followed those in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer reacting to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

“I think that’s all part of the statement,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “There’s sports, and then there’s things that are bigger than sports.”

At Thursday’s video conference with media, Vegas enforcer Ryan Reaves and Canucks captain Bo Horvat stood alongside dozens of masked-up players from the four remaining clubs in the Western Conference hub city. Reaves, whose father is Black and mother is white, had previously knelt at center ice during the playing of the Canadian and American national anthems and suggested his teammates link arms before a July exhibition game.

“I go to war with these guys,” said Reaves, referring to the many white players who agreed to the postponements. “I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”

When the Golden Knights-Canucks series resumed Saturday, so too did the animus of their two previous games. The Golden Knights withstood heavy early pressure from the Canucks thanks to some great goaltending from Robin Lehner, then counterattacked with two goals before the first period was six minutes old.

Mark Stone added his sixth goal of the playoffs on a third-period power play, and Lehner made 31 saves for his second shutout of the series in the 3-0 win. Vegas now leads the best-of-seven series, 2-1.

“I knew our team was going to come out and play really hard from the drop of the puck,” said Vegas forward Alex Tuch, who opened the scoring 4:05 into the first period and is now riding a four-game goal streak, the longest of any player this postseason. “We were ready two days ago, and we were ready today.

Tuch continued: “With everything that happened, I think it brought our team closer together. Being able to come together under such interesting times was huge for our team. We wanted to continue that in the hockey part of it, too.”

The first two games between the Western Conference’s top-seeded Golden Knights and the fifth-seeded Canucks were among the most entertaining of the playoffs. Reaves was front and center in Game 1 on Aug. 23. In a game that featured 99 total hits, he led both clubs with 11 in a 5-0 Vegas win.

Ever the agitator, Reaves at one point was caught on camera clucking like a chicken from the bench in response to Vancouver’s Antoine Roussel having turned down a fight.

The Canucks had leveled the series with a 5-2 win in Game 2. Horvat picked up his seventh and eighth goals of the playoffs, leading all players, and Vancouver’s skaters helped preserve the win by blocking 40 shot attempts, just one short of the NHL playoff record for a non-overtime game.

On Thursday, the clubs came together to initiate talk of suspending play in support of the other professional sports leagues and teams that had shuttered Wednesday. Reaves was debating whether or not to play.

“Last night, I struggled with what I wanted to do,” he said. “Am I really going to walk out on my team and be the only guy, or is there going to be a couple guys?

“But I woke up to a text from Kevin Shattenkirk, and he had a bunch of guys out East there, and they wanted to talk. And then I got a text saying Vancouver wanted to talk.”

“We met as a team in the morning and we felt it was the best decision to go to Vegas and get their take on everything,” said Horvat, the first-year Canucks captain, in a video that played on the big screens at Rogers Place before Game 3. “We talked to Ryan and he made some amazing points and really got the ball rolling.

“We agreed with everything, wanted to be supportive and felt it was the best course of action to take two days, reflect and learn about everything that’s going on in the world.”

Reaves and Shattenkirk had previously spent seven seasons as teammates with the St. Louis Blues. Shattenkirk, now a defenseman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the other players from the four teams in the Eastern Conference hub city of Toronto took their cue from the conversations that were happening out West.

The Eastern series resumed Saturday, with Tampa Bay taking a 3-1 lead over Boston and the New York Islanders going up 2-1 over Philadelphia.

“We got to speak with some of the players in the bubble in Edmonton,” Shattenkirk said Thursday. “When we realized that Vancouver and Vegas, I think, were considering sitting out tonight, and got to speak with them and speak with Ryan Reaves and talk about the issue at hand and how important this is, I think it was something that we were all fully behind.”

The Golden Knights beat Vancouver 5-3 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 series lead and improve to an impressive 10-2 in round robin and playoff games.

Vancouver’s best chance for fending off elimination will be to reignite its offense, especially with the man advantage, and playing with a lead. The Canucks scored early to take control of Game 2 but have been blanked by Vegas when they’ve failed to score first. Their normally dominant power play, which had clicked for 11 goals in the first 10 games in the bubble, had gone just 1 for 11 in the series going into Sunday. It failed on three early attempts Saturday.

In the bigger picture, the NHL and its players have plenty of work ahead if they hope to maximize the long-term effect of this week’s playoff postponement.

“I think there’s a long way to go,” Lehner, who knelt with Reaves and Dallas’ Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin on Aug. 3, said after Saturday’s game.

“I’ve said before, it’s time to start doing something. Everyone deserves the same chance in society and at the end of the day, I think we all just need to do better. It’s time to start pitching in and stop talking and have respect for one another.”

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