OPINION: Five things to watch as the young Canucks take on a veteran laden Wild team
Throughout NHL history the postseason has provided the ultimate proving ground, a solemn rite of passage where reputations are forged and legends are made.
It can be unforgiving, but every great player and every great team has undergone this test and few get it right the first time. Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Ovechkin — we could go on — all suffered bitter defeats early in their careers before they found something in themselves and their teams which made them champions. There are some exceptions but, for the most part, learning to win is a gruelling process.
Sunday | Game 1
Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
7:30 p.m., Rogers Place, Edmonton, TV: Sportsnet, Radio: Sportsnet 650 AM
Which brings us to the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks make their first postseason appearance in five years on Sunday with Game 1 of their play-in series with the Minnesota Wild. True, this series isn’t technically the playoffs but, for the purposes of this young team, it’s their first exposure to the high-stakes game where they will be examined on the big stage.
From head coach Travis Green to Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser, they are largely a young team. The Wild are largely a veteran team. As such, this series will provide an accurate gauge to measure the Canucks both individually and collectively at this stage in their progression.
Here are five things to watch in this very interesting matchup:
1. Petey the great
In his two seasons with the Canucks, Elias Pettersson has hinted at greatness. A point producer and playmaker with a dynamic skill set, he’s established himself as one of the game’s best young players, which means he’ll get the star treatment against the Wild. That means a hard five-on-five matchup with emerging shutdown centre Joel Eriksson Ek. It means a penalty kill which is focused on taking away his one-timer. It means an enhanced degree of physicality in every puck battle.
Much of the Canucks’ offence flows through Pettersson and rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, the power play quarterback. Green sees the traits of all great players in his two young stars, but this will be their first time in the hottest part of the spotlight.
“They’re ready,” Green said, before adding. “When I was playing I was amazed at the way great players wanted the puck. Double overtime, Game 7’s. It didn’t matter. Energy guys just wanted to get it in deep and not screw up.
“That’s the difference. Great players want the puck and that’s the same with (Pettersson and Hughes). They don’t see it as pressure. They embrace it. They see it as the fun part of the game.”
Fun for the fans as well, but a lot of this series will come down to the young stars of their respective teams: Pettersson and the Wild’s Kevin Fiala.
2. Marky on the mark
Markstrom didn’t get any love in the Vezina voting but he made the short list of goaltenders who were most important to their team this season. The Canucks are not a good team defensively but Markstrom hid their warts with a standout campaign.
You can make the case, in fact, that this Canucks’ season was largely a Markstrom construct. Most observers acknowledge the one edge the Canucks have over the Wild is in goal and, bare minimum, Markstrom has to be the best goalie in the series for the Canucks to have a chance.
It’s also been five months since he saw live action and he looked rusty in the one exhibition outing against Winnipeg on Wednesday night. Green says not to worry.
“I see the exact same guy,” the coach said. “He’s looked sharp and confident and fiery at times. He’s like the rest of us. He’s ready to go.”
3. Brock’s better
Three years ago Brock Boeser had the look of a star in the making. Before an injury curtailed his rookie season he was on pace for a 38-goal campaign, which would have made him an elite goal scorer.
We just haven’t seen that player since. Boeser has been OK. But the game-breaker hasn’t emerged. He’s since returned to the Canucks from the layoff, noticeably quicker and stronger, and if he gets back to his 2017-18 form it gives the Canucks a legitimate second line, an improved second power play and something else for the Wild to worry about.
“We’ve had conversations (with Boeser),” says Green. “He probably didn’t play his best at times (this season), but I give him credit. He’s come in and he’s been noticeably better.
“He’s worked on his first three steps and getting his shot off quicker. He’s in better shape. If you want to play, you have to show you want to play.”
4. The third line
Which brings us around to the configuration of the Canucks’ third line. As of this writing, Micheal Ferland has beaten out Jake Virtanen for the spot alongside Adam Gaudette and Antoine Roussel. Ferland was clearly the better player throughout training camp. At his best his game is also built for the playoffs, but scratching Virtanen, a 23-year-old with an attractive skill set, isn’t in the best long-term interests of the team.
“I think Jake is a really good young player,” says Green. “It’s up to me to put the best lineup on the ice. Some of it plays into penalty killing, some of it is performance, and right now it’s Micheal Ferland.”
5. Green’s green
In talking about Pettersson, Hughes, Boeser and others, the irony is Green can apply the same points to himself. In NHL terms, he’s a young coach who’s demonstrated some promise, but this is his first appearance in the postseason.
The Canucks have responded to the Castlegar native, improving their record in each of his three seasons. Now, we’re about to find out how they’ll respond when the table stakes are raised.
“I think we’ve been on the right progression,” Green says. “I think we’re starting the climb and I can’t be more excited.
“I look at it as a young player. I have to control my emotions and make adjustments on the fly. But you want this. You want the heat on. As a coach you want to win the Cup, and winning in Vancouver is what I want to do.”
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