EDMONTON – Nobody likes summer school, but what the Vancouver Canucks learned last week about the Stanley Cup playoffs and themselves should be incredibly valuable for the rest of this tournament and beyond.
Ten days ago, nearly half their lineup literally had never played a National Hockey League playoff game, and that uncertainty and nervousness was exposed in their 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild in the opening game of the qualifying round.
Three games and five days later, it was a wholly different Canucks team that eliminated the Wild. And it will be that version, more aware and more confident, that will be ready tonight in Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.
Until you’ve played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, you haven’t. Now all the Canucks have played.
“I think they’re more comfortable,” coach Travis Green told reporters in Tuesday’s conference call. “Anytime you win, that will help. Not to mention the way we won, losing the first game, bouncing back. Our guys are feeling good about themselves. They’re excited to play the game.”
Tyler Toffoli hasn’t skated since suffering an undisclosed injury in Game 1 against Minnesota. Sixth defenceman Oscar Fantenberg, who was unable to play in Friday’s overtime elimination of the Wild, practised Tuesday and may return to the lineup Wednesday.
“I think they’ve learned a lot,” general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet about his young players. “They learned a lot with us going down 1-0 in that series, and the team kind of bonded together to keep working and competing to win that second game. And then last game, learning to close out a series … I look at this like a wonderful learning experience for them doing things they haven’t been through yet. Now they have an understanding of what it takes. My hope is now, as they keep going forward and things get harder and harder, they understand about what it takes to keep playing hard even if the score is not in your favour or things aren’t going your way.”
BLUES NOT WILD
Things will get harder for the Canucks.
The Wild were like Blues Lite: physical, aggressive, stout defensively and excellent at even strength. But St. Louis has much more talent up front than Minnesota. While the Wild leaned extremely on Kevin Fiala to drive scoring, the Blues have Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron, Jaden Schwarz, Brayden Schenn and Robert Thomas.
They’ve also got Stanley Cup rings. And although the Blues scuffled through the surreal round-robin portion of the playoffs, when the top-four teams in each conference were playing for nothing, their championship DNA should drive them from this point on. If it doesn’t, coach Craig Berube has a serious problem.
Interestingly, each cycle of strong Canucks teams from the last 25 years has beaten the Blues in a playoff series.
The year after Pat Quinn’s Canucks lost the 1994 Stanley Cup Final to the New York Rangers, Vancouver upset Mike Keenan’s Blues in seven opening-round games. In 2003, Marc Crawford’s Canucks rallied from 3-1 down to knock off the Blues in seven in the first round. And in 2009, Alain Vigneault’s Canucks, emerging with Daniel and Henrik Sedin as stars, swept the Blues in the first round.
The Canucks will have to match — or at least withstand — the Blues’ physicality, which means six-foot-eight defenceman Tyler Myers is going to be awfully important. But for the Canucks to win, the 30-year-old can’t keep taking penalties like he’s playing for the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s.
Myers’ nine minor penalties against the Wild are four more than any other player has taken in the playoffs. All nine penalties put the Canucks short-handed, but Vancouver surrendered a power-play goal on just one of them.
“I actually have watched all his penalties,” Green said, conceding he has spoken to Myers several times. “It’s hard for the refs. It’s not easy. Do I think he should have nine minors right now? No, I don’t. Do I think he’s playing a big man’s game and being physical around our net? I do. It’s a fine line.
“Mysie knows it, he’s got to find a way to stay out of the box. He can’t continue to take that many. But again, I don’t want him just not playing physical. He’s got to play physical, he’s got to be big in front of our net.”
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
Don’t expect Canucks winger J.T. Miller to pop another blood vessel screaming out the starting lineup tonight in the Vancouver dressing room. As a veteran, the 27-year-old knows he has to pace himself.
Miller stormed around the room yelling out starters’ names to pump up his team before the Canucks eliminated the Wild 5-4 in overtime on Friday, and the video went viral when it was posted by the team after the game.
“It’s not an every-game thing, that’s for sure,” Miller said Tuesday. “I’ve never really done one that big before but I felt that the time was right.
“I just tried to bring a little energy to the game. It was the first time with this group to have an elimination game, so I figured it was good time for it. Obviously, you get kind of caught up in the moment.”