Canucks vs. Predators: What’s wrong with Elias Pettersson?

The Vancouver Canucks’ star hasn’t scored through the first five games of the Stanley Cup playoffs

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Sometimes what you think you see isn’t what’s actually happening.

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But in the case of Elias Pettersson, the struggles you’re seeing with your eyes are definitely real.

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The numbers make it clear.

Through the first five games of the series, the Canucks’ shot rate with Pettersson on the ice is down almost 20 per cent from the regular season.

The Canucks have yet to score a five-on-five goal with him on the ice.

The team overall is struggling to create chances, but the drop when Pettersson is on the ice has been precipitous. For instance, his success rate on completing passes into the slot, according to data tracker Sportlogiq, is down almost 25 per cent from the regular season.

The slot is where the best scoring chances happen and Pettersson has been adept at getting the puck to the danger areas throughout his career. He wouldn’t have managed to become the fifth-fastest Swede to 400 points in NHL history — just behind Mats Naslund and Mats Sundin — without doing things like that.

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His power outage is coming at an inopportune time, too. A goal here or there in the past week would probably mean the Canucks would have already won the series, such are the fine margins to each game so far.

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Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on as Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators makes a save in Game One of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Arena on April 21, 2024 in Vancouver. Photo by Derek Cain /Getty Images

So what gives? Is he simply struggling for confidence? “It’s between the ears,” a few sources and commentators have replied in response to queries about what ails the Canucks’ sometimes-superstar.

Others have suggested he is struggling with a wrist injury, based on how hesitant he has seemed to be to shoot of late, and how, when he does let the puck loose, inaccurate his shot seems to have become.

Think of the two-on-one chance late in Tuesday’s Game 5. He didn’t look to get much flex on his stick on that chance and while he was clearly looking to pick the top corner, instead he hit Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros in the mask.

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Or the wide-open look he had in Game 2, late in the first period, when he hooked the shot to the right of net, a chance that he would normally bury. There was also a similar moment in Game 2, although not as wide-open and from a tougher angle, where he passed up a chance to shoot and instead tried to make a saucer pass to the top of the crease.

Were those just about a crisis of confidence? Bad luck? Or a wrist issue?

If there’s something bothering Pettersson, he’s not saying.

All he has said about his struggles, with reluctance, is he knows he has to move his feet more.

Others, though, have been willing to wade in, although still somewhat around the edges. Even sources, speaking anonymously, have been careful in their answers — they likely know that Pettersson doesn’t like speculation, he just wants people to deal in the truth, i.e. what he’s saying.

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Rick Tocchet’s answers to queries about Pettersson’s play have become shorter as the series has progressed.

“They were fine,” he said curly of Pettersson’s line after Game 5.

Coach and player have said, more than once, the answer lies in moving his feet. That two-on-one on Tuesday was a great example of Pettersson moving his feet — he created the rush through some quick acceleration, with powerful strides that should probably dismiss notions of him having some sort of groin or core injury, which others have posited is an issue.

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Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet, top, talks to players during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. Photo by Nam Y. Huh /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nils Höglander, his winger, said after the game he thought the line’s play has improved.

“We’re finding the game better now,” he said. And he’s probably right, their line certainly was more notable in Game 5, a game the Canucks largely controlled, but still lost.

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“We played more physical today and got more chances because of this,” he said. “We had opportunities. I think we have to keep shooting more. We haven’t got a lot of shots on net.”

And Canucks president Jim Rutherford figures his star will be fine. He wouldn’t talk about a possible injury, although he did pause for a moment when the question was put to him — “I don’t talk about injuries”. Rather, he focused on the challenge of playing playoff hockey. It’s tough checking, with lots of fan and media noise around.

“He’s not the first guy in NHL playoff history who the points haven’t come to in the playoffs or late in the regular season. And sometimes guys go through those stretches and come out of them,” he observed. The overall environment can be more of a challenge for players going through it all for the first or second time than they might have anticipated, no matter their previous experience of pressure at other levels.

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“(Playoff hockey) it’s different. As everybody can see, it’s not your standard regular season game. There’s not much room out there. Everything happens quicker. And guys like Pettersson get extra attention.”

That extra attention takes adjustment.

“Certainly when you’re going through it for the first or second time, it takes a player a little bit of time to figure out what (the opposition) have figured out. You know, ‘How do I counter this and how do I go about doing some things different?’

“I did feel that Petey looked a little more comfortable in Game 4 and 5. And hopefully this is trending in the right way.”

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