We have series, we have matches, and we have a chronology of events, if not specific dates. Of the series we know will (hopefully) play, any of them could be the best. But only one of them – Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild – is perfect.
Canucks vs Wild (And Some Other Teams)
Ever since the NHL gave us the gift of an actual plan for reopening, fans have rejoiced. Or been angry about how the NHL has screwed their favourite team over. That’s pretty much the same thing for NHL fans. In any case, it’s an opportunity to talk hockey with some specifics attached. That sure beats listening to broadcasters play games of I Dunno, What Do YOU Think Will Happen? One thing pretty much everyone in North America is looking for is an occasional break just for fun.
Glancing over the proposed play-in series, a few stand out. Either of the ones involving the Montreal Canadiens or Chicago Blackhawks are the most controversial, especially for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers fans. Both of the twelfth-place teams made deals assuming they were missing the playoffs, yet here they are. Fans of either of the fifth-place teams will complain less if they do get knocked out of the playoffs but also win one of the top draft slots. Which is when we’ll hear from the fans of the “successful” teams complaining bitterly about “stolen draft picks” and the like. See? Fun!
Good, Better, Perfect
There are some great stories to follow in the play-in round, and not just about who makes it. Calgary Flames vs Winnipeg Jets might be the flashiest series. They have dramatic arcs of players living up to their past like Patrik Laine or Johnny Gaudreau. Sam Bennett desperate to prove he deserved his draft position. Winnipeg’s makeshift defence being led by out-of-nowhere Neal Pionk and held together by the brilliant Connor Hellebuyck.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets has a dramatic clash of styles. The Leafs’ powerhouse offence lining up against an opportunistic Blue Jackets team that cranks down the defence. You want added twists? How well will that team’s defence work with as many as EIGHT players coming back from injury? Tyson Barrie has boomed after the Leafs hired Sheldon Keefe as coach, making them much more dangerous than their standings.
Those are good stories, and they should be fun matches to watch. But neither holds a candle to the… the… the rightness of the Vancouver and Minnesota going at it. Canucks vs Wild is everything the play-in round should be.
That One Time
It’s only us old folks who remember it, but the Wild and Canucks have met in the playoffs before. Only once, back in 2003, but it was a big moment for both teams. For Minnesota, it was the first time the team had made the playoffs, in their third year of existence. They earned their spot, going 42-29-10-1 (that’s 10 ties, one overtime loss). They had just squeaked past the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, and everyone expected their “luck” would run out against Vancouver.
The Canucks, meanwhile, had come back against the St. Louis Blues, and were swaggering after the team’s best-ever 104-point season. Todd Bertuzzi famously told fans in Minnesota to not bother buying tickets to Game 6 because the Canucks would finish the series in Vancouver.
Instead, the Wild rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the second-highest scoring team in the league 7-2, 5-1, and 4-2 to win the series. Marian Gaborik would get 11 points in seven games, and Wes Walz 10. Even former Canuck Cliff Ronning scored six in as many games against them.
What About Now?
There’s a regular-season story to be told, as well. Vancouver had been doing well. They shot out of the blocks on the strength of a young Elias Pettersson continuing last year’s Calder-winning pace. An even younger Quinn Hughes looked to repeat the award for the Canucks. Veteran goaltender Jacob Markstrom refused to fade. New arrival J.T. Miller was an absolute revelation. They stayed miraculously healthy… right up until they didn’t. Injuries started catching up to a team that is growing, but still thin. What had been a nine-point lead for a playoff spot slipped until they had dropped out of a playoff spot when the season was postponed. They had a few games in hand, but their position was a precarious one.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, coach Bruce Boudreau just couldn’t get the Wild over the hump. They stumbled badly out of the gate with a 1-6 record in the first two weeks, giving up a very uncharacteristic 29 goals. And that includes a shutout in their only win. They righted the ship somewhat, but Boudreau was eventually replaced by assistant Dean Evason. Evason, in his first NHL head coaching job, has guided the Wild to an 8-4 record. Wild management finally traded away Jason Zucker this year after years of speculation, signalling their push for future assets, but the team isn’t having it. Kevin Fiala has emerged as a dangerous force this season, scoring 23 goals and 54 points in just 64 games.
The Wild have beaten the Canucks twice this year in three tries, but that doesn’t tell you how close they really are.
So, how close are they?
In their three matches, the Canucks won the first 4-1, the Wild the second 4-2, and Minnesota took the third 4-3 in a shootout. Since that shootout win doesn’t actually count as a goal for anyone, that leaves the Canucks scoring one more goal than the Wild. And one of Vancouver’s goals was on an empty net. Not a huge surprise, though it’s fun to note that not even overtime could settle the series. Each team used five shooters in game three, with new Wild Alex Galchenyuk (from the Zucker trade) making the difference.
No, more than that: Minnesota has one more shot than Vancouver through three games. The teams each went 2-for-4 in the second game, 0-for-2 in the third. The one power-play goal in the first game was on a bench minor, and we know those don’t really count. What I’m saying is, it’s close.
There’s a fun side story with the coaches as well. Travis Green has been a part of the Canucks’ system for several years, including being the head coach in Utica from 2013-14 to 2016-17. He’s watched some of these players come up through the system, but more than that, he’s been the guy in charge in Vancouver for the last three years.
On the other bench is Evason, who has been the interim head coach for just 12 games. He’s not new to the team, though, as he was hired on as an assistant in 2018. He’s hardly new at being a head coach, doing well in Milwaukee for six years, but it’s his first NHL gig. It seems likely he’ll shake the “interim” tag in any case, but a win here would confirm it.
This one made me blink a little. Both teams are going into the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoff with untested goalies. I know, right?
Assuming this Canucks vs Wild match sees the expected starters, it will be Markstrom vs Alex Stalock. Vancouver’s Markstrom has 10 years and 272 NHL games to his credit, and has yet to play a single playoff game. The 32-year-old Stalock has played nine years and in 151 NHL games. He played in the second season three times with San Jose six years ago in 2013-14. With Minnesota, he played most of one playoff game in 2017-18. Both have played very well this year, and if Markstrom were still injured it would be a tougher call. With him back, the Canucks have the advantage – unless you think playoff pressure will affect the goalies. In which case… uh, a saw-off, we guess?
Canucks vs Wild … Fans?
There is one (slightly) sore point for Minnesota fans, and that’s Brock Boeser. Not like Bertuzzi was a perpetual sore point, but because of Joel Eriksson Ek. More specifically, team management selecting Joel Eriksson Ek with the 20th selection in 2015. Boeser, a home-grown scoring talent who lives in the state, went to Vancouver three picks later. Now, Joel Eriksson Ek has been fine with Minnesota since he came over from Sweden. He’s a more physical player than Boeser, and was very impressive playing against men in the SEL. Selecting him was understandable. Buuuuttt…
Boeser has scored 75 goals and 161 points in just 197 games since breaking into the league. He finished top-two for the Calder in 2018. And did I mention he was born in Burnsville, Minnesota? There wouldn’t be a more bittersweet goal than one where Boeser scores should Vancouver win the series.
It’s Number One!
Hockey being what it is, this series could be over in three games. But all three of those games could be hard-fought, overtime matches. No one would be surprised if either team won this in three, four, or five games. But if you’re the betting type? The safest one might be that they finish within one, two, or three goals of each other.