VANCOUVER – For most of the National Hockey League’s regular season, the Vancouver Canucks looked like a young, exciting team on the way up and the Minnesota Wild a dull, older team on the way down. But a flurry of Wild wins at the end, after a coaching change, and bunch of late Canuck losses left the old Northwest Division rivals only a point apart in the standings when the league shut down.
One point. No wonder this series is too close to call — although everyone will call something — with the Canucks’ emerging stars up front challenged by a Wild defence built upon one of the NHL’s best top-fours. We don’t know if this is a series that will get hearts racing, but it should be fascinating and close.
(Team 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Canucks: 48.43 CF% (23rd), 49.48 GF% (20th), 91.9 SV% (14th), 8.6 SH% (9th), 1.005 PDO (10th)
Wild: 49.6 CF% (17th), 52.7 GF% (7th), 91.54 SV% (19th), 9.43 SH% (2nd), 1.01 PDO (5th)
Canucks: 24.2 PP% (4th), 80.5 PK% (16th), 224 GF (9th), 214 GA (19th)
Wild: 21.3 PP% (11th), 77.2 PK% (25th), 218 GF (14th), 217 GA (22nd)
The Canucks and Wild are like two dramatically different drives that end in the same place. Vancouver is a young, high-tempo team that lacks experience and defensive soundness, and Minnesota is an aging team of checkers whose chances of winning grow dimmer by the year. In reality, the Canucks have more experience and the Wild more scoring than people realize. But if these teams are only a point apart again at the end of next season, someone in Vancouver is probably getting fired.
Right now is when their trajectories intersect and, honestly, this is one of the closest series on paper. It’s a classic matchup of one of the best top-six forward groups in the NHL (Canucks Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson) against one of the best top-four defence corps (the Wild’s Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin). A fascinating subplot will be Pettersson against checking centre Joel Eriksson Ek.
The difference should be in goal, where Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom was a lot better this season than either Alex Stalock or Devan Dubnyk. The Canucks could also have a special-teams advantage as its fourth-ranked power play should be a handful for the Wild’s 25th-ranked penalty killing.
But when the season halted in March, it was Minnesota surging under new coach Dean Evason, going 8-3-0 in its last 11 games, while Vancouver scuffled to a 6-9-2 finish. And that Wild sprint back into the playoff race started with a 4-3 shootout win at Rogers Arena on Feb. 19.
Canucks X-Factor: Tyler Toffoli
The winger was a sensation after his February trade from the Kings, scoring six goals and 10 points in 10 games for the Canucks while deployed alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller on the top line. Toffoli, who has always driven possession, nearly doubled his points-per-game after the trade and his shooting percentage spiked to 15.8 from his career average of 10.2. Toffoli is better than anyone in Vancouver thought, won a Stanley Cup with in L.A. in 2014, and is playing for a new contract on a team that desperately wants to keep him.
Wild X-Factor: Kevin Fiala
The Swiss winger’s offensive explosion over the Wild’s final 18 games was so extraordinary, we hardly know what to make of it. His 26 points ranked third in the NHL during that span, and the 14 goals Fiala scored in five weeks was more than he managed all of last season, when he was traded from Nashville for Mikael Granlund. He carried Minnesota down the stretch, at least doubling the scoring totals of every teammate but one (Zach Parise had 14 points). Minnesota hasn’t had a player like that since Marian Gaborik.
Biggest question facing the Canucks: Can the young guns fire in the playoffs?
Rebuilt around Pettersson, 21, Boeser, 23, and Quinn Hughes, 20, the Canucks’ young core pieces are the envy of most teams. But none of them has played a playoff game, which isn’t any different than half the players on a team that hasn’t been in the Stanley Cup tournament since 2015. Are they ready for this?
Biggest question facing the Wild: How much of an impact could Alex Stalock have?
Stalock was a decent enough career backup and guy to sign a three-year contract extension with the Wild in 2019 that carries an annual cap hit of just $785,000. But until Dubnyk forgot how to play this season, Stalock, 32, had never been a starter. The 33-year-old’s 20 wins — in 38 starts — were more than he amassed the last three seasons for the Wild.