New playoff format could reignite Canucks-Wild rivalry

NHL writer Dennis Bernstein joins Follow The Money to discuss all the details for the NHL's potential 24-team playoff format, and with any sort of momentum now thrown out the window, there's an appetite for many first round upsets.

VANCOUVER – Back when the Vancouver Canucks regularly made the playoffs, their biggest rival near the start of the 21st century was the Minnesota Wild.

Then the Chicago Blackhawks came along and made everyone forget about the Wild. Eventually the National Hockey League looked at a map and separated Minnesota and Vancouver during a realignment of divisions and that was that. Hate faded and the Wild became an afterthought.

Did Darby Hendrickson and Wes Walz really win a playoff series for the expansion Wild against the Canucks in 2003 when Vancouver had Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund, and an open lane to the Stanley Cup final? Incredibly, yes.

Seventeen years after the Wild rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win that seven-game second-round series, the rivalry could be reborn this summer if the NHL successfully returns from the coronavirus shutdown and commands a preliminary-round playoff matchup between Vancouver and Minnesota in a hub city to be named later.

According to Elliotte Friedman’s report, the league and its Players Association are working towards agreement on a 24-team Stanley Cup tournament that will see the fifth through 12 seeds in each conference play a five-game series to get into the final 16.

That format, seeded by winning percentages when the NHL stopped on March 12, has No. 7 Vancouver against No. 10 Minnesota.

That matchup doesn’t exactly make the heart race, but the idea of hockey returning sure does, and any post-season games will be important to an emerging Canucks team driven by a handful of young stars who have never experienced a Stanley Cup playoff game.

“It’s another step,” general manager Jim Benning told on Thursday. “That was our plan right from the start of the year — the next step for our young players is to learn how to play in playoff games with the intensity that goes along with it and the sense of urgency. That was our goal at the start of the year, and if we’re able to participate in that I think it’s going to be fantastic for the development of our younger guys.”

These guys include 21-year-old Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson, current rookie-of-the-year candidate Quinn Hughes, 20, 23-year-old forwards Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, and team captain Bo Horvat, 25, whose only playoff experience came five years ago when he was an NHL rookie deployed on the fourth line.

Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, 30, also has never played a playoff game, nor has rookie backup Thatcher Demko, 24.

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This is why the leadership of veteran Canucks like Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, J.T. Miller and former Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup winners Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson is vital.

“We’ve got these young offensive players that are really good,” Canucks coach Travis Green told us last month. “But our team hasn’t played in the kinds of games where every square inch of ice matters. We started to do that this year. And that’s important, that’s vital.

“I think we’re getting there in terms of what a team looks like when it wins. We started to do that the last 10-15 games. Even though we lost some games, I felt like we were a team that was playing for each other. We were in the hard areas of the rink.

“If you don’t have three lines of highly-skilled players, then you better realize what kind of team you are. I think to win in the NHL and to win Stanley Cups, you’ve got to have a certain mindset and certain traits in your group, and I think we’re getting there.”

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The Canucks moved into the top eight in the Western Conference with a 5-4 shootout win against the New York Islanders on March 10, which turned out to be Vancouver’s last game. But despite generally playing well, the Canucks lost five of their six previous games when Markstrom was out with a knee injury and Boeser was missing due to fractured rib cartilage.

But all of the Canucks except middle-six wingers Josh Leivo (knee cap) and Micheal Ferland (concussion) are healthy now, and Leivo, at least, should be ready to play in the summer.

“I’m excited that our team is going to be healthy and we’re going to have a healthy group,” Benning said. “But having said that, all the other teams should be healthy too. We’re going to be in the (playoff) mix with whatever they decide, so we’re just waiting for what the league agrees to do with the Players Association.”

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The Canucks were 1-1-1 against the Wild this season, and when Minnesota won 4-3 in a shootout in Vancouver on Feb. 19 the result seemed inconsequential to the playoff race. Newly-acquired winger Alex Galchenyuk scored his first goal for the Wild – a double ricochet that bounced in off Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher’s face – to tie the game with 4:45 remaining and then beat Markstrom to end a five-round shootout.

But under coach Dean Evason, who had just replaced the fired Bruce Boudreau, that victory launched an 8-3-0 Minnesota run that saw the Wild score 43 goals and climb back towards the playoffs. When the season halted, Minnesota was only one standings point behind 36-27-6 Vancouver, which was tied with Nashville for sixth on winning percentage (.565) but lost out on the first tie-breaker. The Canucks are followed by the Calgary Flames (.564) and Winnipeg Jets (.563).

You won’t get any of the Canucks to say it, but they’d choose to play the Wild over any of those teams. Of course, they’d be thrilled to play anyone.


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