Now that the NHL has officially announced the 24-team playoff format, we know that the Vancouver Canucks will be playing the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the modified postseason. Too bad we will have to potentially wait until the end of July to watch the boys in blue and green take to the ice again. Nevertheless, hockey is back and we couldn’t be happier. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the first opponent the Canucks will have to face in their first journey to the Stanley Cup in four seasons. Though, before we do that, let’s take a trip down memory lane to the last time they met the Wild in the playoffs…
Re-living 2003 Against the Wild
The Canucks and the Wild last met in the postseason way back in 2003, nearly 17 years ago. It took place at the height of the West Coast Express when Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi were in their prime and dominating the NHL. Naslund had just scored 48 goals and 104 points and Bertuzzi was right there with him having potted 46 goals and 97 points of his own. They were the toast of the NHL, ready to lead their team to the promised land. Unfortunately, the Wild had other ideas.
The Canucks started the second round well enough, winning Games 1, 3, and 4; then ego reared its ugly head in the form of Big Bert. Minutes after going up 3-1 in the series and inching towards a date against the upstart Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Bertuzzi told Wild fans buying tickets for Game 6 that the series would be over in Vancouver. It turned out, that one sentence ended up dooming the entire season for the Canucks, as the Wild came back to win the series 4-3.
That was then, this is now. The Wild are not the same team as their 2003 counterparts. For one, they do not have the high-flying Marian Gaborik, or the Canuck Killer trio of Andrew Brunette, Wes Walz, and Pascal Dupuis. They also don’t have to deal with the stifling defensive system of head coach Jacques Lemaire. Finally, the infuriating tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez are not their goaltenders. So how do the Bo Horvat-led Canucks match up against the 2020 version of Wild? Let’s find out!
Canucks – Wild Matchup Overview
The Canucks and the Wild were pretty evenly matched this season. In three games each team scored nine goals, and the largest margin of victory was three when the Canucks skated away with a 4-1 win in their first meeting. The Wild went on to win the final two meetings of the season with a 4-2 decision and most recently a 4-3 shootout victory. JT Miller and Kevin Fiala were the players of note in the season series as they combined for five goals and eight points.
The regular season standings couldn’t have been more closer. The Canucks earned 78 points and a plus-18 goal differential in 69 games compared to the Wild’s 77 points and even goal differential in 69 games. That’s right, both teams were only separated by one point before the pause. If the season had continued, they probably would have been fighting for the last wild card spot right up to the dying seconds of the 2019-20 campaign.
Offence should be on the side of the Canucks as they boast four 20-goal scorers and seven players that are in the double digits. However, even though the Wild only have two 20-goal scorers, they have a total of nine players with ten or more goals.
Goaltending could be the deciding factor for the Canucks in this series. Jacob Markstrom will once again tend the crease for the Canucks after an MVP-worthy season that saw him take his place as one of the elite starting netminders in the NHL. His numbers may not look it, but he’s one of the reasons that the Canucks even have a chance at the Stanley Cup this season. If he can continue his rise to stardom and steal games as he did during the regular season, he could carry the team to new heights this postseason.
The Wild, on the other hand, have cycled through goaltenders this season. Devan Dubnyk started the season as the de facto number one but was usurped by his backup Alex Stalock down the stretch. His struggles have been widely chronicled as the $3.5 million man only started once in the month of March while his counterpart started four times. He did start and win his last start before the pause but did not help his case for the playoffs as he allowed four goals on 26 shots. It’s not set in stone, but I would bet that Stalock gets the nod when the puck drops in Game 1.
The stats back this up as well as Dubnyk had a 3.35 goals-against average (GAA) to go along with an equally abysmal .890 save percentage (SV%). Stalock, however, had much stronger numbers with a 2.67 GAA and a .910 SV%. Dubnyk has a lot more playoff experience, but not much success as he only has eight wins. Stalock is relatively inexperienced having only started once in the postseason back in 2014 with the San Jose Sharks.
Canucks Match Up Well With The Wild
On paper, the Canucks are better than the Wild in many areas. They have superior special teams, goaltending, and scoring depth which should make a huge difference in a five-game series. The one thing the Wild do have is a lot more playoff experience on their roster. Between the four of them, Staal, Parise, Koivu, and Suter have accumulated 72 goals and 177 points in 288 games. Parise leads the way with 35 goals and 74 points in 97 games.
If all of them are able to conjure up the spirits of playoffs past, they could surprise the Canucks in this series. However, they are all 35-years-old and those numbers were mostly accumulated when they were in their prime during their 20s. Although Parise did have three goals in three games back in the 2018 playoffs. Fortunately for the Canucks, their veterans have some playoff experience as well with Toffoli and Jay Beagle winning Stanley Cups in 2014 and 2018 respectively. They were key players on their teams as well as Toffoli had 7 goals and 14 points and Beagle had two goals and eight points during their respective runs.
Optics aside, the Wild do still pose a significant threat to the Canucks moving on to a potential date against the Colorado Avalanche. If they do not clean up their defensive game and eliminate their frequent collapses in the third period, they will not have success in this play-in round of the playoffs. Despite their “on-paper” disadvantages, the Wild still could win this series if certain players step up.
In his brief tenure against the Canucks, Fiala has already shown a propensity to be a frustrating player like Gaborik was back in 2003, and Parise has a very real chance of continuing the dominance he’s shown in past postseasons. Don’t forget, he was also a 25-goal scorer in 2019-20. Zuccarello could also be a factor as he is just coming off a postseason where he potted 4 goals and 11 points for the Dallas Stars.
Goaltending is on the side of the Canucks, but if they continue to hang Markstrom out to dry like they have all season long, the armour could crack over the short period of a five-game series. Fortunately for them, he has shown the ability to battle through and thrive under the intense pressure of being a shooter tutor.
Every time he has faced over 40 shots, Markstrom has come out on top more often than not, as he finished the season with seven wins. That included the franchise setting 49-save shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sedin Night. When all is said and done, he may end up being the main reason the Canucks move on.
Matchups to Watch
Battle of the Rookie Head Coaches
Dean Evason and Travis Green have never coached in an NHL postseason as both of them have only cut their teeth in the regular season. Evason is still relatively new to the scene having coached only 12 games for the Wild since taking over from Bruce Boudreau. Green, on the other hand, has coached the Canucks for three seasons and 233 games. Both coaches have extensive NHL experience as players as they have combined for 1,773 games played. However, standing behind the bench is much different than being on the ice as strategy and the ability to adapt becomes king in the playoffs.
It will be interesting to see how they adapt to each other’s styles as the best-of-five series progresses. Unlike the regular postseason, they will not have the luxury of a seven-game series, so the saying of “adapt or die” should be the motto of both coaches early on.
If Green can conjure up his playoff success from the Portland Winterhawks and Utica Comets, he could have the upper hand on Evason as he has never made it out of the second round in his tenure as head coach. However, he does have extensive assistant coaching experience with the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild. Whatever the result, we will get to see two relatively new head coaches duke it out during the course of this series.
Young Guns vs the Veterans
The Canucks have arguably two of the most exciting young players in the NHL in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. In addition, they have 2017-18 Calder nominee Brock Boeser, captain Bo Horvat, Adam Gaudette, and Jake Virtanen in the wings, who are all part of the under-25 club. So if it comes down to an abundance of youthful energy, they will have it in spades.
The Wild don’t boast the same young star power the Canucks do. Fiala is one of the only major under-25 threats on offence with 23 goals and 54 points, and the next closest is Luke Kunin with 15 goals and 31 points. Hughes alone has 53 points, which would rank second on the team if he was with the Wild. Oh yes, and he’s a defenceman. Basically, what I am trying to say is that the Canucks have a lot more young offensive weapons at their disposal.
If the Wild are going to have any chance in this series, veterans like Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Mats Zuccarello need to step up in a big way. The minute muncher on defence in Ryan Suter will also have to keep up with the nearly unstoppable JT Miller and new acquisition Tyler Toffoli who has looked right at home on the top line with Pettersson and the aforementioned Miller. All-in-all, they have their work cut out for them if they hope to move past the play-in round.
Virtanen had a breakout season in 2019-20 with 18 goals and 36 points. He also seemed to find the consistency that had been plaguing him his entire NHL career. His style of play is built for life in the playoffs as he is fast, dynamic and a physical force when he puts his mind to it. The timing of his breakout party couldn’t be better as he suits up for his first NHL postseason with the Canucks.
If Virtanen can bring back the player that put up 5 goals and 13 points in 14 games with the Calgary Hitmen back in 2015, Canucks’ fans should be in for a treat. He was nearly a point-a-game and was a thorn in the side of his opponents all playoffs long. He did get into a little bit of hot water though when he was suspended for three games for a headshot to Tanner Kaspick of the Brandon Wheat Kings. If he can leave that in the past and shake off the rust from the extended layoff, “Shotgun Jake” could be a huge difference in this series for the Canucks.
After moving to his third team in two seasons, Alex Galchenyuk is looking for a new lease on life once again. The former Montreal Canadiens’ star prospect could be one to watch in this series as he’s one of only a few offensive threats on a roster full of aging stars. He wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with the Wild before the pause, but he could become a problem if he gets on a roll. He still has loads of skill, so the Canucks better not sleep on the former third-overall pick.
Final Verdict – Canucks in Five
This series will be a battle, but ultimately, the Canucks will win it in five games. Markstrom and the overall depth of offence will come out on top even if the defence falters in front of him. There are definite question marks in the bottom-six when it comes to Josh Leivo and Micheal Ferland, but even if they don’t play, they still have the bodies to overcome the challenge the Wild will present.
However, this won’t be an easy one to win as the season series can attest to. There was no clear winner as every game was close and the fact that they only met the Evason-led team once makes this a hard matchup to predict. Though if Markstrom and the mix of young guns and veterans continue to play as they did during the regular season, we should get to see the Calder Trophy contenders in Hughes and Cale Makar faceoff in the official first round of the playoffs. So enough of the preamble, let’s finally play some hockey!
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.