Welcome, at last, after months of anticipation and fear, to the very weird world of the 2020 Not-The-Stanley-Cup-Playoffs! The strangeness of this hybrid “playoffs for players, not for teams” play-in round doesn’t change the goal. Beat your opponent, win the series. Lose, and go home. With that in mind, we examine a match of polar opposites today: the Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild.
Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild
Despite both teams being in the West, they have only met once come playoff time. Even so, the Canucks are an essential part of Wild history. In the 2002-2003 season, the three-year-old franchise reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. Minnesota had beat their first-round opponent Colorado Avalanche by coming back from a 3-1 deficit. Their last two wins were in overtime, boosting their confidence against a high-scoring team. Their reward was to meet the even higher-scoring Canucks.
Vancouver, likewise, recovered from a 3-1 deficit to the St. Louis Blues to reach the second round. Their West Coast Express was rolling, and the only answer Minnesota has was their first-ever draft pick, Marian Gaborik. Going into the second round meeting, the impression was that the Wild had been lucky to get past Colorado. Indeed, when they went down three games to one, Todd Bertuzzi told Wild fans to not bother getting tickets to Game Six.
End result? Minnesota came storming back to with the series 4-3, outscoring the favoured Canucks 16-5 over the last three games. Gaborik finished the series with 11 points, and journeyman Wes Walz had the series of his life with five goals and five assists.
That was the last win for the Wild, getting swept in the Western Final, but it was still an integral part of their growth as a team. If everything goes according to plan, August second will mark the second time these two teams meet in the second season.
We’ve talked earlier about how ridiculously closely these two teams have played each other. The interesting thing – or one of them – is how differently Minnesota and Vancouver play.
Minnesota plays a suppression game, limiting opportunities for their opponents at the cost of their own chances. It’s a tactic they’ve been known for since their first coach, the legendary Jacques Lemaire, through their coach at the beginning of this season, Bruce Boudreau. But a funny thing happened this season when they switched from Boudreau to Dean Evason. The flaccid offence picked up 44 goals in their last 12 games. They still allowed 35 against in those same games, but take out a 7-3 blowout to the surging Los Angeles Kings and the results are a well-earned 8-4 record.
Most of the improvement was on the shoulders of career backup Alex Stalock finding his game before Devan Dubnyk did. But the sudden burst of offence from Kevin Fiala hasn’t hurt one bit. Fiala had already surpassed career highs, but no one expected nine goals and seven assists in those twelve games. That’s a solid run, whoever you are!
Add to that the shutdown specialist Joel Eriksson Ek and a blueline led by the always dangerous Ryan Suter, and you have a team that is content to shut down high scorers, limit chances, and strike when they can. And with six players who have 14 or more goals, that strike might come from anyone.
For all their heralded – if historical – defence, special teams haven’t lived up to expectations. Again, a large part of that was Dubnyk’s down year, but a sub-par 77% penalty kill leaves them and their physical play vulnerable. Whistles are rarer in the playoffs, but it remains an Achilles’ heel.
After Fiala, the Wild’s next three scorers are all 35 years old. The extended break may have let the league’s veterans heal, but it doesn’t stop them from ageing. If the series goes five games, they are going to be played in eight days. Younger legs are going to have to step up.
Local Boy Does Good
Much has been made this year of Minnesota native Brock Boeser‘s supposed “down season” where he only scored 16 goals in 57 games. While it’s certainly less than expected of the Nearly-Six-Million-Dollar-Man, his 29 assists point to his linemates. Between Elias Pettersson‘s and J.T. Miller‘s 27 goals each, the Canucks top-line scoring was more than adequate. The second line hasn’t let the side down, either. Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson have each passed the 20 goals mark, despite taking the bulk of “hard minutes” against their opponent’s best players.
That line matching is a vital part of coach Travis Green‘s strategy. It’s allowed him to shelter Adam Gaudette, who has responded with 33 points in 59 games and less than 13 minutes a night. Exciting – for a variety of reasons – winger Jake Virtanen hit 18 goals, and would almost certainly have been the teams’ fifth 20-goal man this season. As it is, this is the first time since 2009-10 the Canucks have four 20-goal scorers.
Which brings us to Quinn Hughes. It’s difficult to overstate just how important Hughes has been for Vancouver. His 53 points obliterated Canucks rookie defenceman scoring records, but there’s more than that. His ability to carry the puck out of trouble has led to a fully healthy season from stalwart Chris Tanev. A resurgence in play – and diminished minutes – for Alexander Edler. And over 24 percent on the power-play. For a coach who likes to line match as much as Green does, Hughes’ rookie season has been vital.
The last line of defence has been, as always, Jacob Markstrom. On a team with Hughes, Pettersson, and a resurgent Miller, Vancouver’s MVP is without question their starter. He’s been good in the previous four years, but he’s been great this one.
The team loves to be on the attack. So much so that Green uses every opportunity to leave the dirty work in their own end to a few players. That has… mixed results, at best. Veteran Jay Beagle was brought in to take the brunt of it, and he has. The team’s so-called fourth line is often given hard minutes at the expense of scoring lines. Vancouver’s defence isn’t helped much in that regard, either. More often than not, they’re left with lower-skilled players when play is in their own end. Markstrom is doing work this season, but too often he’s held off strong scoring chances given up by the team in front of him.
Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild Prediction
Hoo, boy. Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild is a series between two teams reliant on just a few players. If someone gets injured or even just doesn’t play up to expectations it could be a blowout. Or it could be a series sweep, but with three total goals separating the two. There is no result that would be a complete surprise, and the result could be anything.
Arms twisted, we’re going to go with star power over reliable systems.
Vancouver Canucks in four games.