The Vancouver Canucks will meet the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round of the playoffs, and honestly, they are a much better matchup than the Dallas Stars. They at least looked good against the St. Louis Blues in the regular season where they finished with a winning record, as opposed to the Stars where they were blown out twice.
The Canucks had a 2-0-1 record against the Blues in 2019-20 and have won the last three playoff series against them as well. So there are reasons for optimism when the games get going on Wednesday. Much like my colleague Trege Wilson’s matchup piece for the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers’ first-round series, I will mark a win for the team with the advantage in each category of offence, defence, goaltending, power play (PP), penalty kill (PK) and coaching. Finally, I will be adding a fun category of Canucks and Blues killers into the mix as well.
Whichever team comes out on top in most of the categories should win the series. But since hockey isn’t played on paper, surprises will undoubtedly happen when all is said and done. So, let’s dig into this first-round matchup that sees the Canucks meet the Blues for the fourth time in their history!
According to the statistics, the Canucks are just slightly the better team in every category from goals per 60 minutes to high danger scoring chances. They scored an average of 2.62 goals per game compared to the Blues’ 2.57 and even had more high danger scoring chances as well with 10.9 compared to the Blues’ 9.5.
As you can see in the graphic above, the Canucks also led in shot attempts with 56.6 and scoring chances with 25.6. In addition to that, they boasted four 20-goal scorers to the Blues’ three and could have finished with six if the regular season did not come to an abrupt end. Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen were on pace for over 20 goals, and even Adam Gaudette could have gone on a tear and eclipsed that mark as well.
Having said that, the Blues have a lot more depth offensively with 11 players scoring 10 or more goals compared to the Canucks’ seven. We will talk more about the defence later, but they also had three of their defencemen score nine or more goals. That could cause problems for the Canucks as Quinn Hughes was the only blueliner to hit the net with any regularity. However, because of the game-breaking potential of the Lotto Line of Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and J.T. Miller, I am giving this round to the Canucks.
Canucks lead series 1-0
The Canucks defence was a sore point all season long as they gave up a lot of high danger chances which forced goaltender Jacob Markstrom into making a lot of difficult saves. That being said, they did have one heck of a series against the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round. However, we have to look at the regular season stats regardless, because the Blues did not have to play in the qualifying round for one simple reason, stellar team defence.
If this series was based only on that fact, the Blues would annihilate the Canucks, because they outperformed them in every defensive category this season. They had goals against average (GAA) of 2.05 compared to the Canucks’ 2.68 GAA and only allowed 49.9 shot attempts against, which was a whole ten shots less than the Canucks allowed.
As you can see from the above graphic, the Canucks really have no advantage defensively over the Blues. The only area where they are close is save percentage and that’s because of the stellar goaltending provided by Markstrom all season. If it wasn’t obvious already, the Blues win this round by a landslide.
Series tied 1-1
Just like it was against the Wild, the Canucks should have the advantage when it comes to goaltending. Based on the advanced statistics from the regular season, Markstrom has the edge in every category. The biggest one being the goals saved above average (GSAA) statistic. If you are not familiar with this, it considers the number of shots a goaltender has faced and measures it against the league average save percentage on the same number of shots. It basically is a calculation of his performance when compared to his peers.
When it comes to that statistic, Markstrom was head and shoulders above Binnington’s 3.31 GSAA with an 11.40 GSAA. This isn’t a perfect stat mind you, as it does not consider the quality of the team in front of a particular goaltender. Though, it does paint a pretty good picture of what Markstrom was providing to the Canucks.[table id=355 /]
As you can see, Markstrom was a huge part of the Canucks’ success this season. He bailed his teammates out on multiple occasions and was even in the Vezina Trophy conversation as well. However, the layoff seemed to set him back a bit as he did not look like himself in the qualifying round against the Wild. Despite recording his first playoff shutout in Game 3, he was not the best player on the ice in Game 4, as his teammates had to drag him over the finish line by outscoring his mistakes.
Binnington did not have a spectacular regular season and seemed to struggle in the round-robin. If Markstrom can return to his MVP form, the Canucks have a distinct advantage in net. Though you shouldn’t discount recent history with Binnington, as he carried the Blues from a basement dweller to a Stanley Cup champion in 2019. He was also in the conversation for the Calder Trophy and Conn Smythe too, so I would not bet against him becoming that goaltender again. Having said that, I think Markstrom will carry his team over the finish line in this series, so I am giving the Canucks the win here.
Canucks lead series 2-1
The Blues and Canucks had almost the same amount of success on the power play in the regular season as they were ranked third and fourth in the league respectively. They both have elite first units, but when it comes to the second wave of attack, the Blues have a distinct advantage. When you can have Jaden Schwartz, Tyler Bozak, and Colton Parayko on your second unit, your power play has some depth.
The Blues also came out on top in scoring and high danger chances with an average of 54 and 21 respectively. The shooting percentages were almost the same, so both teams had similar success at finishing off those chances. Though when it came to sheer volume, the Blues were way better at generating them. At this point, you have to ask yourself, what’s more important, generating or finishing? This is very close, but I am giving a slight edge to the Blues because of the talent they have on the second unit.
Series tied 2-2
Both the Canucks and Blues were not elite on the penalty killing side of things, ranked 16th and 18th respectively. Though when you look a little closer, the Canucks did have an advantage, especially when it came to goals per 60 minutes with 6.65 compared to the Blues’ 7.10. They also had a superior save percentage with an 87.7 rating.
As you can see above, the Blues did limit more scoring chances and shot attempts on the penalty kill than the Canucks, but when it came to keeping the puck out of the net, they were not nearly as effective. Again, what’s more important, limiting chances or stopping goals? I think it should definitely be the latter, so I give this round to the Canucks.
Canucks lead series 3-2
Both Travis Green and Craig Berube were physical and gritty forwards in the NHL before they started coaching. Between the two of them, they have over 2000 games of experience in the regular season and 145 games in the postseason. So they both know what playoff hockey looks like from a player’s perspective.
The difference comes when coaching gets involved. Overall Berube has 14 seasons of coaching experience in the NHL, while Green only has three. He is also embarking on his first voyage into the actual playoffs while Berube has already won a Stanley Cup.
Berube has a proven system in place and is a terrific bench boss when it comes to building team cohesion, accountability, and respect. Green is in many ways the same, as he is a brilliant x’s and o’s coach that is able to motivate his players to work hard and come to play every night, which in the playoffs could be the difference between moving on and going home.
So we should see the battle of similar styles and personalities in this series, except Berube has recent experience to fall back on, while Green does not. This is very close, but I am giving this round to Berube and the Blues, mostly because of his coaching experience and success in the regular season.
Series tied 3-3
Canucks & Blues Killers
Looks like this series is going to come down to the x-factors, which in this case are the players that always seem to have success against certain teams. When you look back in the history between these two, there are several players that stand out in that respect.
Ever since David Perron came into the NHL, he has been a thorn in the side of the Canucks. Overall he has 11 goals and 24 points in 40 games against them and is always one of the best players on the ice regardless of his performance at the time.
This season Perron was not a huge factor with only a single assist in three games, but the Canucks should be wary of him nonetheless.
Even though Steen is on the back half of his career, and is playing a bottom-six role for the Blues, he is still a threat to score especially against the Canucks. In his career he has 13 goals and 23 points in 36 games and just like Perron, is always good for a goal or point whenever he faces the men in blue and green. In 2019-20 he had two assists in three games, so despite his decline in offence, he still managed to put up some points which at this point is somewhat expected.
In his short two-season career, Pettersson has already shown a propensity to produce against the Blues, generating two goals and nine points in only six games. That should be good news for the Canucks, as he was showing signs of breaking out in the qualifying round. If he can channel some of that previous success into this series, the Blues are going to be in trouble. In 2019-20 he had two assists in three games, so he should be able to draw on some recent success as well.
If the Blues weren’t afraid of Boeser before this, they should be now. He was a beast against the Wild scoring two gritty goals, and looked miles ahead of where he was at the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign. He also seems to love playing the Blues. In eight career games, he has five goals, including a hat trick back in 2018-19.
Boeser didn’t have any points in the three games this season, but that was before he found the fountain of youth. If he can play the game he displayed in the qualifying round, I have no doubt that his success against them will continue.
The Canucks captain was pretty dominant against the Blues this season. Bo Horvat had two goals and 10 shots and was his usual workhorse-self, playing an average of 20 minutes over the course of the three games. He also has six goals and eight points in 16 career games. After a slow start to his first playoff series in four seasons, he was a force in the series-clinching game on Friday and should be poised to continue that success in the upcoming first round.
Considering the Canucks have more killers than the Blues do, I am giving this round to them. Throw in the fact that all of them are key offensive producers, their confidence should be high. Hopefully, they can draw upon those good feelings and in turn make a huge difference in this series.
Canucks win series 4-3
Canucks Could Upset the Blues
The Blues finished 16 points ahead of the Canucks and were first in the Western Conference before the pause, so based on that, it should be a quick series. However, when you dig deeper into the various statistical categories, it’s not as black and white as you might think. In fact, the Canucks actually won the matchup!
The Blues also have been playing relatively meaningless hockey in the round-robin while the Canucks were in an intense battle with the Wild. So I would not count them out by any means. With Pettersson, Hughes, and Boeser in high gear and the team riding an emotional high, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win this series in seven games. Though, with all the experience the Blues have, it could also go the other way. Regardless, playoff hockey is back in Vancouver and it should be a fun ride when the puck finally drops on Wednesday.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.