Tonight the Vancouver Canucks face the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you’re the Canucks, you know that to take home the Cup you have to beat everyone, so why not start with the best – or at least the reigning champions?
The Blues won the 2019 Stanley Cup title in surprising fashion given where they ranked at mid-season. Last season, they rode the impressive play of young goaltender Jordan Binnington, who can’t be in the Canucks’ good books after calling Elias Petterson second-best when he lost to the young Swede in Calder Trophy voting.
However, Binnington seems to be having a tough time in the postseason, starting two of the three round-robin games with less-than-stellar results. He ended those games with a goals-against-average of 4.10 and a save percentage of .895.
The Blues enter tonight’s game having lost all three round-robin games to be ranked the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Because the Canucks beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 in their best-of-five qualifying series, they earned the fifth seed.
In this edition of Canucks News & Rumors, I want to look at the status of the team as it enters Round One of the playoffs. As well, I want to spend some time talking about one key to the Canucks’ success during the play-in round, captain Bo Horvat.
Item One: Bo Horvat Has Become a Great Leader
Horvat is entering Round One of the playoffs fresh off success. He not only led his team to an exciting Game 4 victory but also to a decisive four-game series win over the Wild. During the series-deciding game, he scored a goal and two assists in a 5-4 overtime win.
Horvat carried the team from start to finish. His two assists came on goals by Tanner Pearson and Brandon Sutter, but by scoring the Canucks’ fourth goal at 14:14 of the third period, he pushed the game into overtime, which allowed Chris Tanev’s innocent-looking point shot to sneak through everyone only 11 seconds into that extra period.
The 25-year-old captain ended the play-in series with two goals and five points. Making the playoffs is special to Horvat, who seems to carry the weight of his team’s history. He is happy to see how much the franchise has grown since he became a Canuck, and he made that clear when he spoke to the media.
Horvat reminded fans that “This franchise has been through a lot. These last four years, not making the playoffs, we’ve taken it to heart. We wanted to come out and prove ourselves, play hard. We have a great group of guys here, and to finally get a playoff win under our belt in a playoff series, it definitely feels great, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Horvat was named team captain this season and has been one of the few players to be part of the rebuild (Alex Edler is another notable player). He’s been good, even if the team around him has not always matched his enthusiasm, grit, or skill. Since his rookie season, he’s led the team with 120 goals and 275 points in 446 games.
If he can have another monster series, this time against the Blues, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Canucks moved to the next round.
Item Two: Team Chemistry and Jacob Markstrom
Fans can only speculate about what happens inside the locker room but, the Canucks seem to be an especially tight group and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom always seems to be in the middle of it.
Markstrom is a happy guy who jokes easily with his teammates. Team chemistry matters because it encourages players to sacrifice for each other and to share credit without jealously.
Related: Vancouver Canucks All-Time Team
Horvat was quick to point to Markstrom as being a huge reason for the Canucks’ regular-season success and their qualifying series win. He noted that Markstrom’s “been a brick wall for us all year … he’s been our rock ever since Day 1, and we wouldn’t be in this position right now without him.”
The team seems to get along well, which matters.
Item Three: Adam Gaudette Has the Go Ahead to Play
Adam Gaudette, who had an “undisclosed” injury, didn’t play in the last three games of the Wild series but has been practicing with the team. Perhaps one of the surprises of the play-in series has been the play of Gaudette’s replacement Brandon Sutter. I’d continue to play Sutter on the third line in place of Gaudette if I was head coach Travis Green.
That last word on Gaudette was that he should be an option for Game 1. Whether Green shakes up success or not remains to be seen. The team won all three games without Gaudette, so it might take an injury or a poor performance to see him back in the lineup.
Item Four: Oscar Fantenberg Can Likely Play
Oscar Fantenberg, who also has an “undisclosed” injury, couldn’t play in Friday’s Game 4. However, his absence allowed the young prospect Olli Juolevi to make his NHL debut. If Fantenberg can play, he’ll likely bump Juolevi and join Tyler Myers on the third defensive pairing.
Item Five: Jay Beagle Is Ready to Go
Jay Beagle, who injured his hand blocking a shot in Game 4, will be able to play in Game 1 tonight. He hasn’t been productive offensively during the postseason; however, he’s strong in the faceoff circle and brings a physical game the Canucks need. Beagle will likely play on the fourth line if Gaudette is healthy.
What’s Next for the Canucks?
St. Louis is the reigning Stanley Cup champs; however, the Canucks played them well this season and took a point in every game. I’m especially anxious to see how Binnington plays and whether his critique of Pettersson gives the Canucks extra motivation.
I’m also anxious to watch how Pettersson’s game continues to evolve during the playoffs. Both he and super rookie Quinn Hughes are growing before our eyes and they might present unique challenges for the Blues – especially Hughes, who can water bug all over the ice.
It should be a good series and hard test for the Canucks.