After four painful years of a sputtering rebuild that saw the Canucks lose more National Hockey League games than anyone outside Buffalo, Vancouver emerged this season as the team it hoped to become — faster and more talented, driven by a handful of rising young stars and key veterans.
While the NHL won’t count the play-in round for this summer’s extraordinary Stanley Cup tournament as official playoff games, the Canucks certainly do. They haven’t had actual playoff games since 2015, and Vancouver hasn’t won a playoff round since the Western Conference Final in 2011.
With so many of their players unfamiliar with playoff hockey, these must-win games against the Minnesota Wild are what the Canucks aimed for when the season began. But now that they’re almost here, the Canucks want something more than just experience to fuel future growth.
“People say: ‘You’ll finally play meaningful games,’” coach Travis Green Green told Sportsnet in June. “That’s not what this is about to me. It’s not about getting a few games under our belt under hard and exciting circumstances, in pressure-filled games. This is about: How do we win the first series, and then how do we win the second series? And I can tell you, we’re not going into this thinking we’re only going to be playing one or two rounds.”
Regular season record: 36-27-6 (7th in the West by points percentage)
Goals for: 224 (8th in NHL)
Goals against: 214 (tied 19th in NHL)
Leading goal scorers: J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson (27)
Leading point scorer: Miller (72)
Jacob Markstrom: The Canucks goalie and team MVP was recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee when the season halted on March 12. But he was due to return in late March and has declared himself fully fit for summer hockey.
Chris Tanev: The injury-prone defenceman, a mentor and partner to Calder Trophy candidate Quinn Hughes, managed to dress for all 69 games this season before suffering a knee sprain in the Canucks’ final game. But he was expected to miss only a week or two, and has been skating pain-free in Vancouver.
Micheal Ferland: The rugged winger was shut down for the “season” in February when his second attempt to return from a serious October concussion was aborted during a conditioning stint in the AHL. But hockey’s hibernation lasted long enough for Ferland to get back on skates and feel comfortable again, and he is back at training camp to give it another try.
Josh Leivo: The Canucks had hoped the unprecedented extension of the season would allow their versatile middle-six forward time to heal from a shattered knee cap suffered in December, but Leivo continues to rehab and is unlikely to be ready when hockey restarts in August.
Player to Watch
We can’t choose just one. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The dynamic duo — just 21 and 20 years old — are two of the brightest young stars in the game and drive the Canucks from different positions. They’re vitally important to team success, and neither has logged an NHL playoff game.
One interesting stat: Markstrom went 23-16-4 with a .918 save percentage this season. But in games when he faced at least 40 shots, the goaltender was 7-1-0 with a mind-blowing .951 save rate. Markstrom is best when he is busy, but the Wild were a bottom-third team in shot volume with 30.1 per game.
Possible Line Combinations
J.T. Miller – Elias Pettersson – Tyler Toffoli
Quinn Hughes – Chris Tanev
The biggest question facing the Canucks is…
Are they ready for this?
Few teams in hockey have a 23-and-under talent pool of Pettersson, Hughes and Boeser. But playoff inexperience goes far beyond the talented trio.
Neither Markstrom nor his backup, Demko, has started a playoff game, and neither have Virtanen, Stecher and Gaudette. Horvat’s only playoff series was five years ago when he was a rookie. Sure, Pearson and Toffoli won a Stanley Cup with the Kings, as Beagle did with the Capitals. And Miller and Myers have been on long playoff runs recently.
But playoffs are a different world for this group of Canucks, who will lean most heavily on guys who have never seen them.