Elias Pettersson sat at a microphone Tuesday, arms crossed, face blank. The Vancouver Canucks center sounded emotionless talking about a 5-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Sunday.
“We didn’t play our best hockey,” he said. “Um, and …”
He paused, pursed his lips, and shrugged.
“Today, we got to bring it,” he said.
The center brought it a few hours later.
He charged down the left wing, scooted past defenseman Shea Theodore and wrapped around the net with Theodore whacking at him in his wake. Pettersson looked like he was going try to stuff the puck inside the right post, so goalie Robin Lehner hugged that right post, and defenseman Alec Martinez left his man in front.
Not only was Canucks forward Tyler Toffoli alone off the left post, he had time to settle a pass from Pettersson and shoot it into the open net, giving Vancouver a 1-0 lead 1:29 into the first period.
Pettersson had a secondary assist on a power-play goal that extended the lead to 2-0 later in the first. After Vegas cut it to 2-1 in the second, he made it 3-1 with a gorgeous goal, finding a seam off a face-off win, slipping behind defenders, taking a pass in the slot, and fooling Lehner with a forehand-backhand-forehand deke.
The Canucks went on to win 5-2 and tie the best-of-7 series 1-1.
Afterward, Pettersson was at the podium again, arms crossed again, face blank again. He sounded emotionless again when asked if Vegas’ chirping in Game 1 motivated Vancouver.
“It’s hockey. Like, it’s emotions,” he said, clearing his throat. “I don’t really focus on that too much. I just want to be out there, and trying to play my best and win a hockey game for the team.”
Don’t be fooled though. The fire burns within, and it was stoked.
“[Pettersson is] a really competitive individual, and he wants to win,” Canucks defenseman Troy Stecher said Wednesday. “He puts in the work during practices to improve his game, and he wants to be that superstar that already is. So I’m sure that fueled him a little bit. I think his play did the talking.”
Game 3 is Thursday (9:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) in Edmonton, the Western hub city.
Pettersson is second in the NHL postseason with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 12 games, four behind Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, who has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 11 games. Pettersson has the most points through 12 postseason games in Canucks history.
And he’s 21 years old and making his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He is the fifth player 21 or younger to have at least six multipoint games among the first 12 postseason games of his NHL career, joining Wayne Gretzky (seven), Sidney Crosby (seven), Don Maloney (six) and Ken Linseman (six).
The skill and creativity have been obvious since Pettersson arrived in the NHL. He scored 66 points (28 goals, 38 assists) in 71 games last season and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year. He scored 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) in 68 games before this season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
But he is learning to play without the puck and quickly adapting to the NHL postseason, especially against a heavy, intimidating team like Vegas. He’s taking it upon himself to make a difference for his team, to bring it when it’s needed most.
“I’m not going to get into the mind of a highly skilled individual,” said Canucks coach Travis Green, who played 970 games over 14 seasons as a center in the NHL. “I was by far not that type of player and let those players play and do what they can do well.
“We ask [Pettersson] to compete. We ask him to play away from the puck, commit to certain things on the ice that are necessary to win, and he buys into all that. He works hard both ends of the rink. He’s trying to become a better defensive player as well.
“He’s very smart, and I think the biggest thing is that he wants to win badly and understands that he doesn’t have to just win by scoring or making assists, even though that is a big part of his game and he’s very good at it.”
Don’t underestimate the last part.
“I think it’s essential in good players,” Green said. “Players that I’ve played with in the past, players that you see that have success, the top players in the League, it’s well-documented the compete level that they have inside and how they want to push themselves and push others around them to be better.
“And I think [Pettersson] has that quality. He goes about it quietly, but he’s a fierce competitor, and he wants to win badly.”