Canada’s last team left standing in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is still supposed to be building toward its best days.
For the Vancouver Canucks, this season was all about taking that next step, which we took to mean just getting to the playoffs and leaving them with valuable lessons. Even a first-round exit wouldn’t have been unacceptable.
Now we’re wondering how far this can go. The Canucks, a team driven by a young core and without much playoff experience even from its 30-year-old netminder, are fresh off their latest upset — a six-game triumph over the St. Louis Blues that we could one day look back on as having more than one franchise defining moment. Their reward? A second-round matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights, who were finalists just two years ago and are the current odds favourites to win it all in 2020.
“With Vegas, they got a lot of strengths,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “Speed is one of them. They’ve got skill, size. There are probably a lot of people who picked Vegas as one of the finalists for the Cup.
“Belief is just installed in your group. Part of it is talking about it, and not just the good things either. Being honest. But I do think our group has confidence in themselves going back to the beginning of the season. I don’t think anyone picked us to make the playoffs this past season and yet, inside the locker room, to a man I think we felt we were capable of making the playoffs. I think the belief started there.”
Look up and down the lineup and you’ll see someone who has had a key moment for these Canucks so far. From Elias Pettersson, who is second to Nathan MacKinnon in playoff scoring with 13 points in 10 games, to Tyler Motte, an unlikely goal scorer who had back-to-back two-goal games to close out the Blues series. From electrifying Quinn Hughes, who is opening everyone’s eyes to the fact that we need to get used to the idea of him being a Norris candidate before long, to Alexander Edler and Christopher Tanev, two grizzled veterans who are second and fourth in blocked shots these playoffs.
Jake Virtanen scored the tying goal in Game 5’s critical comeback against St. Louis. Troy Stecher scored two game-winners against the defending champs.
The Canucks got through the tight-checking and physical Blues and now draw a higher-tempo team in Vegas that has the league’s best 5-on-5 shot differential in both the regular season and playoffs this season. Vancouver ranked 25th in the regular season and is 20th in these playoffs by that measure. So of course, the same questions that were being asked about them last round are being raised again.
How can this inexperienced team that supposedly struggles with depth hang with an opponent whose window to win is so clearly open right now?
“When you hear rumblings of us being the underdogs obviously you want to prove people wrong,” said captain Bo Horvat, who himself had back-to-back two-goal games to open the St. Louis series. “I think that’s a lot of what drives people is proving people wrong and proving to yourself you can do it.”
Perhaps — perhaps — the Canucks could even start their Round 2 series with an early edge. Prior to Saturday’s Game 1 between the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, Sportsnet’s Kevin Bieksa noted that often the team that starts on shorter rest comes out a little sharper and that’s exactly how the other West semifinal series started. Dallas, on one day’s rest, jumped out to an early lead and were the better team up and down in their 5-3 win.
Vegas comes into Round 2 on four days rest after knocking out the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, while the Canucks had only Saturday to recharge.
“Kinda happy just to get it going again,” Brandon Sutter said. “Maybe an extra day of rest would have been good but…when you’re rolling and playing well you just want to keep going. I think everyone seems to be. Obviously when you’re winning you feel confident, I don’t feel like you need too many days of practice. I’m ready to keep playing.”
This is the furthest any Canucks team has gone in the post-season since the 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final. That team was at its peak and got there after three second round eliminations in four seasons. If the 2020 Canucks manage to get past Vegas, you might say they’re well ahead of schedule.
I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that last October.