2024 Stanley Cup Series Preview: Canucks vs. Oilers

Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet talks about how his team has grown throughout the season to be able to defeat the Nashville Predators in the first round and the challenge that lies ahead facing the Edmonton Oilers.

It had to be these two clubs.

The NHL is a league of chaos, built around a game of chaos. But sometimes, just sometimes, the hockey gods offer up something glorious. So how about this: Oilers-Canucks, Round 2, with the stakes as high as they’ve ever been for the two proud Canadian franchises.

That Game 1 falls seven months, nearly to the day, after the two of them began their seasons against each other with a one-sided, nine-goal result that started each spiralling in opposite directions? Well that’s just a bonus.

It’s the type of all-Canadian matchup that comes around only rarely. Two star-studded clubs with bona fide Stanley Cup aspirations, on a collision course for each other, both seemingly on the cusp of the meaningful playoff progress they’ve long craved. It’s tough to believe the Oilers aren’t still miffed about the way the Canucks rolled them to start the season — how better to redeem themselves than beating them when it counts? And on the other side of the aisle, the Canucks have to feel fairly confident going into this draw, knowing that for all the Oilers’ skill and bluster, they have yet to register a win against Vancouver this season.

Connor McDavid, Elias Pettersson, Leon Draisaitl, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, Evan Bouchard. This figures to be one for the books. Here’s a closer look at how we got here, and how it all might shake out.

Head-to-head record regular season:

Canucks: 4-0-0
Oilers: 0-4-0

How Vancouver Got Here: After three straight seasons without playoff hockey, and a sixth-place finish in the Pacific last year, the Canucks came out flying in 2023-24. As mentioned, it began by kicking in the Oilers’ teeth in Game 1, an 8-1 season-opener that kicked off a dominant, resurgent campaign from Rick Tocchet’s crew.

Though the doubters waited all year for the fall-off, Vancouver finished the regular season with their first division title in over a decade and a hefty collection of award nominations, setting up a date with the Nashville Predators, a top-five club in their own right from the All-Star break on.

Vancouver started the first round strong, firing on all cylinders in Game 1. But then came a potentially devastating blow — an injury to star netminder Thatcher Demko, that could (and in the end, did) sideline him for the rest of the series. By the end of Game 2, the Canucks looked cooked, with Casey DeSmith taking over in the cage and getting lit up to the tune of four goals on just 16 shots, and Nashville taking a dominant win to level the series.

But where previous iterations of these Canucks might’ve gone away, this group adjusted, adapted. The final four meetings of the series finished as one-goal games. And the Canucks took three of four, getting a redemption effort from DeSmith in Game 3, before two clutch, crucial wins from rookie Arturs Silovs, whose finest showing in a Canucks sweater came in the biggest game of his career: a shutout in Game 6, with everything on the line, to clinch the series.

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How Edmonton Got Here: Rewind back to October, in the wake of that 8-1 meltdown, and the Oilers looked destined for a lost year rather than a third straight trip to the post-season’s second round. But like the Canucks showed over their past five games, the thing that separates this iteration of the Oilers from those of years past is their ability to fight through all that nearly derailed their campaign.

The most significant of those, of course, was the tumult of their own creation, the miserable start that had them sitting second-last in the league a month into 2023-24. The slide pushed the Oilers brass into some swift surgery, head coach Jay Woodcroft ousted in favour of Kris Knoblauch. Then came the wins, piled in record-tying fashion — by the end of the year, the Oil had climbed to second in the Pacific, top-10 league-wide, setting up a third-straight first-round meeting with the L.A. Kings.

The franchise’s recent history of playoff battles is as clear a map of a core’s progress as you’ll find. In three years, the Oilers have continued to beat the Kings in quicker and more decisive fashion than the year previous — it took seven games in 2022, six in 2023, just five this time around. And the latest series saw Edmonton give the Kings a little bit of everything — a 7-4 rout in Game 1, another 6-1 drubbing in Game 3, a hard-fought 1-0 win in Game 4, and a comeback win in Game 5 to close it out and end the thing.

If you look at the clubs that struggled through this first round, and the issues that plagued them, you’ll find the opposite in Edmonton right now. The stars are dominating, the power play looks unstoppable, and the goalie’s one of only three across the league who’s managed a shutout in these playoffs.

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Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

Canucks X-Factor: Arturs Silovs

There’s no question the biggest story of Vancouver’s playoff run to this point was the loss of Demko, and the group’s ability to overcome what seemed like a sure-fire season-ender. Serviceable two-game run from DeSmith aside, the Canucks were able to survive Demko’s absence because of the steady, unexpected emergence of Silovs.

The 23-year-old Silovs has gotten better with each game he’s played, culminating in that crucial Game 6 performance to help send his club into Round 2. But now the real test comes. The Predators are no slouches — they potted the 10th-most goals per game during the regular season — but Edmonton’s offence is something else entirely. It’s not just the fact that you have McDavid flying at you at top speed, with hands that move as quick as his feet — it’s all the rest of them, and how they’ve put it all together. 

Whoever is manning the Canucks’ cage come Game 1 figures to have their hands full. Maybe it’s Demko, returning in time for Round 2 and picking up where he left off in his Vezina Trophy-nominated campaign. Still, whatever the star netminder is dealing with is significant enough that it kept him out of nearly the entire first round. Whether Silovs starts Game 1 to give Demko more time to get right, or comes in later should injury attempt to derail Demko down the line, it seems likely the young Latvian will figure into the series in some form. If he does, Vancouver will need his best to beat these Oilers.

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Oilers X-Factor: Zach Hyman

Any gameplan for shutting down the Oilers offence begins with Nos. 97 and 29. Between the pair of them, McDavid and Draisaitl have proven able to wreak havoc on the best defences — particularly in the playoffs, where the duo have a combined 125 points in 33 games stretching back through the past two years.

But it isn’t McDavid or Draisaitl who’s pacing the Oilers in goals through one round this year — it’s Zach Hyman, his seven goals through the Oilers’ five first-round tilts leading the league to this point. Call them gifts, credit them all to No. 97 — in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you’re the team on the other side of the sheet. What’s indisputable is the fact that Hyman appears to be the perfect endgame for McDavid’s all-world playmaking abilities, and he’s mastered the art of putting himself in position to finish off whatever wizardry McDavid directs his way.

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We already know it’s no fluke, Hyman having amassed the third-most goals in the league during the regular season, his 54 topped only by Sam Reinhart and Auston Matthews. What should be worrisome for Vancouver is where and how exactly those goals come — in close around the cage, tipped, deflected, and finishing off quick passes in the slot. During the regular season, 44 of Hyman’s 54 goals came off high-danger scoring chances and, in the playoffs, six of his seven have. His approach has translated seamlessly to the post-season, even against a Kings team that allowed the third-fewest goals per game during the regular season.

Against a Canucks team with uncertainty in net? That seven-goal sum’s at risk of ballooning.

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