Hughes in the crosshairs: Can Canucks captain rise above Oilers’ targeted treatment? Simply put, he must

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Paterson
1 month ago
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Quinn Hughes is many things. He is the best defenceman the Vancouver Canucks have ever had. He is the presumptive Norris Trophy winner as the best blueliner in the National Hockey League this season. At his best, he is a one-man breakout machine and a play-driving, point producing dynamo that tilts the ice in the Canucks favour often making opponents trying to stop him look foolish in the process. 
But through two games in this second round battle against the Edmonton Oilers, Hughes has also been the fourth most-impactful defenseman in this series. And that’s both a problem — and an opportunity — for the Canucks who head to the Alberta capital tied at one win apiece after a split of the first two games in Vancouver.
The Canucks have scored eight goals in the series and Hughes has just a single point so far – a secondary assist on Elias Pettersson’s first period power play goal on Friday night. In a series that has seen six goals from defencemen already, Hughes, who led the team logging 27:14 on Friday night, is still looking for his first goal of the playoffs and has just two shots through two games against the Oilers.
But beyond the counting statistics, Hughes hasn’t been able to find that gear that allows him to control play and spend most of his shifts in the offensive zone. He’s been okay. But for the Canucks to prevail in this series, they’ll need more than just okay from their superstar captain.
“In the third period we were in the mode of just flipping pucks out so when that happens a guy like Hughes doesn’t get the puck that much,” Canucks coach Rick Tocchet said on Saturday before the team departed for Edmonton. “I think he has to maybe move the puck a little quicker on a give and go and get it later. Sometimes you’re playing teams that shadow you so much that you don’t have time and space. Obviously, they’re going to finish their checks so that’s why we have to make sure other guys hold up and skate to options. If they want to double-up, then you should be open so I think it’s a combination of a lot of little things.”
In 41:16 at 5-on-5 in the series, Hughes hasn’t been on the ice for a goal – by either team. Contrast that with the fact the Canucks outscored opponents 92-55 at 5-on-5 with Hughes on the ice during the regular season. Through two games of this series the Canucks have held a 35-31 edge in shot attempts and a 15-13 advantage in shots on goal. In other words, it’s basically been a push when Hughes has been on the ice and that’s not the blueprint for Canucks success. 
With Carson Soucy and Tyler Myers drawing the thankless assignment of trying to keep Connor McDavid in check, Hughes for the most part is getting favourable match-ups that should work in his favour and in turn help the Canucks control, and ultimately win, those minutes. On Friday, he held his own when matched-up with McDavid, but wasn’t able to make a dent in those shifts when he was facing the Oilers supernova.
When it comes to defencemen leaving their finger prints on the games so far, Hughes has some work to do. Evan Bouchard scored the game winner on Friday night and leads the series with eight shots on goal. His defence partner Mattias Ekholm has scored in each of the first two games of the series. The goals are 4-0, the shots are 23-4, the scoring chances are 24-4 and the high dangers are 14-2 with the veteran Swede on the ice. 
It’s fair to say to this point that Nikita Zadorov has been more prominent than Hughes with Zadorov scoring once in each game, adding an assist on Brock Boeser’s first goal of the series on Friday night while continuing to provide a physical presence on almost every shift.
Like Nashville did in the opening round, the Oilers are doing their best to make life difficult on Hughes. That comes with the territory when you’re a star in this league. But Hughes deserves the benefit of a call or two from the referees, too. Corey Perry broke his stick across Hughes with a first period cross-check. No penalty. Connor McDavid raked Hughes across the face with a high stick in the second. No penalty. And Evander Kane clearly kicked the feet out from under Hughes as he finished a heavy check in the third. Guess what? Again, no penalty.
Like all great players, Hughes has to find a way to play through the nonsense and rise above. But the officials have a job to do, too, and the Oilers can’t be allowed to abuse Hughes without putting the Canucks on the power play.
In the playoffs, Hughes has six points through eight games. There have been moments, sure, but not enough of them. Three of his points have come on the power play. Three at even strength. Three have been primary assists and three have been secondary.
Four of his points have come on home ice and two have come on the road.
And as the Canucks pack their bags and head for Edmonton and Games 3 and 4 of this series, opportunity is knocking for Quinn Hughes. 
The fact that the Canucks are tied in a hotly-contested series and Hughes hasn’t left his mark yet can be seen as a positive. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be heard from as the series progresses. This is a player that has met all challenges in his NHL career head on and found ways to prevail.
If the Canucks are going to beat the Oilers, they’ll need more than they’ve seen so far from Hughes. Especially if he’s seeing the middle of the Edmonton line-up. That’s a tactical advantage that Hughes and the Canucks simply must take advantage of.
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