EDMONTON — Until you’re a starting goaltender in the National Hockey League playoffs, you’re not. Until you’re a team that has proved it can win in the playoffs, you haven’t.
Playoff inexperience was always going to be a factor for the Vancouver Canucks. It was an inescapable reality. But what wasn’t known — and still isn’t — was how much it would affect them in this spectacularly unique version of the Stanley Cup tournament.
Twenty-four teams playing at neutral venues without fans, playing and living in a bubble after a four-month layoff, hockey in the middle of summer, unnaturally early and late game times, a best-of-five preliminary round.
A once-in-a-century pandemic has caused a once-in-a-lifetime Stanley Cup format. In this, everyone is inexperienced.
After Vancouver’s first playoff game in five years, as a team almost entirely rebuilt during that time, ended in a 3-0 loss Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, the Canucks’ breakthrough season will flash before their eyes if they lose Game 2 here tonight.
Was inexperience a factor in Game 1?
Jacob Markstrom allowed a bad goal less than three minutes into his first playoff start, but kept the Canucks close early and stopped 28 of 30 shots. Young stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were among the best Canucks.
But it’s not just the playoff rookies, but the entire team, one of the NHL’s worst the last four seasons, that has to figure out how to win again in the post-season. A bunch of veteran players were sub-par and the Canucks did not do enough to break down the robust Wild.
Checking centre Jay Beagle, who won a Stanley Cup with Washington two years ago and is easily the Canucks’ most experienced player in the playoffs, has no doubt about his teammates’ willingness to battle and win.
“With different groups there are different dynamics,” Beagle, 34, said. “The first thing that struck me about this group was the willingness to win and do whatever it takes. Some years we were so good in Washington but for some reason we just couldn’t get over the hump. We couldn’t get through the second round. I don’t even know why that was. But the core group that is here is hungry.
“It’s just a hunger I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced, to tell you the truth. There’s a hunger to get the job done… to be an elite team. There’s just commitment throughout the whole team to be here and that willingness to win — to do whatever it takes. That’s not always the case on teams.
“There are teams that have a lot of skill, but that hunger isn’t there. This team has it.”
Tonight is the time to show it.
The Canucks did not practice Monday but coach Travis Green said he was “considering everything” with regard to his lineup for Game 2.
Winger Jake Virtanen, who scored 18 goals during the regular season but was outplayed by others at training camp, was a healthy scratch on Sunday but could return to the lineup tonight. The problem is there is still no obvious spot to insert him because the most vulnerable Canuck in Game 1 was third-line centre Adam Gaudette, who looked nervous with the puck and logged only 10:47 of ice time.
Virtanen can’t play centre, but fourth-line winger Brandon Sutter can. Sutter would give Green more reliability, but elevating him at the expense of Gaudette, who had 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games this season, would further dilute the offence in a bottom-six that struggles to score.
Third-line winger Micheal Ferland remains a wildcard. In his first NHL game since December, which was two months after he suffered a concussion fighting Kyle Clifford in Los Angeles, Ferland fought Wild winger Marcus Foligno off a faceoff. Without a practice on Monday — or any disclosure on NHL injuries — it’s impossible to know Ferland’s status.
Green could alter his top two lines, which combined for only five shots on goal on Sunday. Tyler Toffoli had easily his poorest game since February’s trade from L.A. and could move down a peg to play with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, which would allow Brock Boeser to be reunited with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller.
Somewhere behind them, we’re guessing Virtanen plays Game 2.
Agitating Wild winger Ryan Hartman expressed no frustration Monday about the lack of suspension for Ferland, who was merely fined $5,000 by the NHL for spearing Hartman at the bench during the third period of Game 1. Minnesota’s Luke Kunin, who had grabbed Ferland’s stick from his seat on the bench, was fined $1,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct. He should pay at least that much to Hartman for getting his teammate forked.
“Emotions run high in playoff games, especially Game 1,” Hartman said. “We have guys on the ice that can handle it, and everyone handled it perfectly, letting them complain and get pissed off. We responded by coming back harder and keeping the pressure on. We’re looking to do that the whole series.”
THE LONG WAY HERE
Like Canucks coach Travis Green, the Wild’s Dean Evason is a first-time head coach in the playoffs. Minnesota’s season turned around when Evason, 55, replaced Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14.
After an 803-game playing career in the NHL, Evason’s coaching career began 21 years ago with the Kamloops Blazers, for whom he was a junior hockey star two decades earlier. Evason also coached the Vancouver Giants for two seasons before moving to the NHL in 2005 as an assistant with the Washington Capitals.
British Columbia remains special to Evason.
“Great experience playing there, coaching there, coaching in Vancouver as well,” he said. “I absolutely loved B.C., and there’s no question I’ve got some good texts (from people there) and some angry texts as well.”
Even without fans, Rogers Place will be awfully loud again tonight around the benches. Canucks-Wild was one of the most intense games of the playoffs’ opening weekend.
“Everybody says how quiet it possibly could be without fans there,” Evason said.
“It’s not quiet. It’s not quiet down below. The guys are excited when things happen. I’m still having to yell … down at the end of the bench to make sure we have the communication about who’s going on a given shift. Up top it might be quieter, down below it is not.”