EDMONTON – With a chance tonight to win an National Hockey League playoff series for the first time since 2011, the Vancouver Canucks have built their 2-1 advantage over the Minnesota Wild with a tool few thought they possessed: strong 5-on-5 play.
The Canucks have outscored the Wild 4-0 at 5-on-5. And while this is a little misleading because the Wild has controlled 53.5 per cent of shot attempts and 57.7 per cent of scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, Minnesota’s failure to capitalize at even-strength against goalie Jacob Markstrom has been a huge factor.
Ahead of a series that was almost too close to call, the Wild’s advantage at 5-on-5, indicative of what was believed to be greater lineup depth both up front and on defence, was the biggest factor that could turn the series in their favour.
Minnesota was plus-15 in 5-on-5 scoring differential during the regular season, seventh in the NHL. Vancouver was 21st at minus-four.
The Canucks have more firepower at the top of the lineup and a better goaltender, but they were supposed to have trouble at even-strength against the Wild.
Three games in, here we are: zero 5-on-5 goals for Minnesota.
“It’s hard not to be pleased,” Canucks coach Travis Green said after Thursday’s 3-0 win. “There’s been so much talk about our team over the last four months about how we are an offensive team and our deficiencies are probably in the defensive part of the game.
“I’ve got to give our team a lot of credit for buying in to playing the way you need to play in the playoffs to win. If you’re not willing to defend, and you’re not willing to be strong around your net, you’re probably not going to win many games. The guys understand we’ve got to be good in that area if we’re going to win, and they’re buying in.”
As far as the depth goes, Vancouver’s 12th forward, Antoine Roussel, scored on a breakaway in Thursday’s 3-0 win; depth forwards Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle and Tyler Motte have been vital to a penalty kill that has the Wild power play on a 0-for-14 coma over 25:49 of advantage time since the middle of Game 1; and the Canucks’ third defence pairing of Oscar Fantenberg and Tyler Myers has not been a liability (except when Myers is taking bad penalties).
Due to the injuries, the Canucks have already used 15 forwards.
“I don’t know where the question was,” Roussel said when asked Thursday about depth perceptions. “But I feel (our) guys have a lot of experience and everyone is contributing.”
Minnesota coach Dean Evason insists that his team’s glass is not only half full but splashing over the rim.
“Our 5-on-5 play has been exceptional,” Evason said after his team was shut out. “We’re creating, we’re getting zone time, we’re getting possession time. We’re just not finding the back of the net yet. We’re all around it. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we believe we’ll get an opportunity to break it open.”
They have as little as one game left to it.
Wild winger Ryan Hartman took a dangerous run at Vancouver star Elias Pettersson in Game 3, driving the 21-year-old head-first into the boards when the Canuck was already bent over and vulnerable. How did Pettersson handle this attack, retribution for a retaliatory shove that hurt Hartman on Tuesday?
Pettersson got up, went on the power play and eventually finished with a goal and assist.
Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, 20, have stayed remarkably composed while being targeted for abuse by Minnesota. Wild star Kevin Fiala, by contrast, appears to be losing his mind.
After stinging Alex Edler with a shot after an offside whistle, Fiala then bumped the defenceman before doing the same to Markstrom, which led Canucks Troy Stecher and Brandon Sutter to bury Fiala in the corner.
Fiala’s double-minor put the Wild short-handed when his team was already down 2-0, and his slashing penalty late in the third period essentially ended the contest.
Clearly, the physical attention is having a greater effect on Fiala than Pettersson or Hughes.
“I’ve got to eliminate those stupid penalties,” Fiala said after the game. “Five-on-five, I think we’re a great team. If we can keep 5-on-5 … we have a better chance to win.
“I’ve got stay focused, 60 minutes-plus. I can’t take those penalties. They got to me today. I was six minutes in the penalty box. It’s too long. I’ve just got to focus on the game, focus on helping us. I think everybody is better on the ice than in the penalty box. That is going to be main focus next game.”
Evason sure hopes so.
“We talked about it as a group; every coach talks about it,” the coach said. “We’ve talked until we’re blue in the face about staying off the referees and not taking bad penalties.”
Fiala is a wonderful player who is expected to lead the Wild. Just not in penalty minutes.
As surprising as the Canucks outscoring the Wild at even-strength, Markstrom was outplayed by Alex Stalock in Game 1. The goalies were about even in Game 2, and Markstrom was perfect in Game 3.
Stalock has not been the liability some expected in this series. It’s hard to think of a Canucks goal that was his fault. But Markstrom looks to have overtaken him and given Vancouver the advantage in net that was projected.
It took Markstrom 115 regular-season starts to record an NHL shutout. He now has one playoff shutout in three starts and looks stronger by the day.