EDMONTON – Take away the mountains and ocean from Vancouver and you’ve pretty much got Edmonton but with better weather and worse gas prices.
Take away the advantage of superior goaltending and top-end offensive skill from the Vancouver Canucks, and you’ve got a team without a chance of advancing in the post-season. Actually, without those strengths, the Canucks aren’t anywhere near the Stanley Cup tournament – even with 24 teams.
When the Canucks lost their first playoff game in five years Sunday to the Minnesota Wild, who are more like Edmonton than the Oilers are, Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom was outplayed by Alex Stalock, and the Canucks’ formidable top two forward lines combined for zero points and just five shots on net.
Equally surprising, as badly as the Canucks failed in the two areas that are supposed to be the difference against the stout and disciplined Wild, Vancouver lost “only” 3-0 on a pair of Minnesota power-play goals and an empty-netter.
Amid the micro-analysis and yet another bloom of panic on the West Coast, there isn’t much mystery to any of this ahead of Game 2 on Tuesday.
Markstrom can’t let in bad goals like the groaner that rattled through him from Kevin Fiala just 2:50 into Sunday’s game, and the best Canucks forwards have to be productive because, honestly, changing one of the bottom-six guys isn’t going to swing the series.
“It is playoffs; it’s very hard to get to the inside,” winger J.T. Miller, the Canucks’ leading scorer during the regular season, told reporters in Monday’s conference call. “Teams, that’s their main focus: don’t let the easy chances come, those Grade-As come. So you’ve got to go to the hard areas to get them. They do a good job of putting a lot of people down low and we’ve just got to find a way to get our shots through and have traffic at the net and score those playoff-type goals.”
Yes, but the problem is the Wild protect Stalock like a bunch of mama grizzlies protecting their last-surviving cub. Minnesota, with solid NHL players right through its lineup, is perfectly suited to playing the game we saw Sunday: an early lead, ferocious defending, physical play and zero daylight for the Canucks’ flashy forwards.
Bo Horvat, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson did not register a shot on target. Brock Boeser had one shot and Miller and Elias Pettersson recorded two each. Despite taking a physical pounding – how many seconds late would Marcus Foligno’s hit on Pettersson need to be to warrant an interference penalty because three seconds were not enough? – the 21-year-old Swedish 2-iron was one of the best Canucks.
Pettersson was one of only two Vancouver skaters to register positive scores for both shots-for percentage and expected-goals, which measure shot quality, according to Natural Stat Trick. The other was defenceman Troy Stecher.
So this isn’t about Pettersson, but it’s about his line. And it’s certainly about the Pearson-Horvat-Boeser unit, which had looked fantastic from the time training camp opened on July 13 until Sunday.
The trio attempted only five shots. Horvat’s ice time of 17:27 was his second-lowest in 21 games since Jan. 16.
“Our guys did an unbelievable job staying with them,” Stalock said after the game. “You eliminate their skill guys, that’s part of the goal.”
Foligno said: “We were the team that initiated the physicality, and just the smart play, we had great legs on the backcheck, things like that. We really annoyed their top players, and I think that’s what you needed.”
With their dynamic skill and cycle game in the offensive zone, the Canucks drew the second-highest number of power plays in the NHL during the regular season. But in Game 1, their only power play came with 4:41 to remaining in the third period.
Incomprehensibly, the Canucks negated a first-period power play when they took a too-many-men penalty during a delayed call against the Wild.
The score at five-on-five was 0-0.
The Wild required Stalock to make exactly one save in the final 11 minutes.
“Of course, every team wants to play with the lead,” Minnesota coach Dean Evason said Monday. “It’s easier to hold your composure. Your frustration level is lower. The swings of hockey games, obviously, can go back and forth but if you’re put in a position like we were last night… you really get committed to shutting things down.
“You don’t have to open it up, you don’t have to look for a break, you don’t press. You stay within yourselves and stay within your system. As a coach and coaches, you want your hockey club to do that every shift regardless of what’s on the scoreboard. But it always seems a little bit easier when you have the lead, for sure.”
Canucks head coach Travis Green said there was little about the Wild’s game that surprised him. They’re tough to break down, tough to penetrate.
“I thought the defensive side of our game was very strong,” Green said. “Minus that. . . six or seven minutes at the start of the game, we might have given up four or five scoring chances the rest of the way.
“If you would have told me in Game 1 we’d give up that many scoring chances, we’d probably take it and be pretty happy about it. But we’ve got to find a way to generate some more. They’ve got a veteran group on the back end that defends well and boxes out hard. It’s no secret where you score goals in the playoffs, and we’ve got a day to talk to our team about it.”
The Canucks did not practise on Monday. Green said he “considering everything” when it comes to lineup moves, which means fast 18-goal scorer Jake Virtanen could play Tuesday after being scratched for Game 1. But the players higher up the lineup would still need to be better.