Feeling somewhat more seasoned in playoff experience, the Vancouver Canucks now face an opponent with loads of it.
Vancouver opens a first-round, best-of-seven series Wednesday in Edmonton against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. The winner’s second-round opponent will be the victor of the series between the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars.
The Canucks are a playoff team for the first time since 2015.
Ten Canucks, including goaltender Jakob Markstrom, had zero NHL post-season experience prior to beating the Minnesota Wild in four games in a best-of-five qualifier.
After dropping the opener, the Canucks won three straight game to advance.
“It was great for us, a great learning experience because there’s a lot of us playing our first NHL playoffs,” Canucks forward Elias Pettersson said.
NHL playoffs veteran J.T. Miller and first-timer Troy Stecher answer questions from the media about beating the Wild and moving on to face the Blues. pic.twitter.com/JZUEGK43AD
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) August 11, 2020
Vancouver rides the confidence that comes with three consecutive victories, while the Blues have yet to win a game since their arrival in Edmonton.
St. Louis kept its 2019 Cup roster intact and topped the Western Conference this season. But the Blues went 0-3 in the round robin of the conference’s top four teams to determine seeding.
St. Louis defenceman Alex Pietrangelo is aware his team needs to summon urgency for an elimination series that opens with three games in five days.
“Our minds will be really dialled in here,” the captain said. “We’ve had a lot of down time in this qualifying. They gave us a probably a little bit too much time to sit around.
“To be able to flip that switch, I think if there’s a group that can do it, it’s going to be us.”
The penalty box will be a factor given the potency of each team’s power play units. St. Louis ranked third in the league with a man advantage (24.3), marginally ahead of Vancouver in fourth (24.2).
Blues head coach Craig Berube can handle his players taking penalties to prevent a goal or to assert physicality, but can’t abide cheap minors.
“We haven’t been disciplined yet,” he said. “We’ve got to do a much better job of getting rid of the slashing penalties and the hookings and things like that.”
Vancouver’s 78 penalty minutes versus the Wild led all teams in the NHL’s restart.
“Special teams, it’s going to be huge in this series as well,” Canucks forward Loui Eriksson said. “We have to stay maybe a little bit more discipline and don’t take as many penalties we did against Minnesota.”
Each team boasts a faceoff circle ace. Blues assistant captain Ryan O’Reilly took more draws than any player in the NHL this season winning 56.6 per cent of his 1,556.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat ranked third in reps (1,483) winning 57.3.
“It’s better to start with the puck than without it,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “At this time of year, it’s all those little things that add up at the end of the night.”
Canucks forwards Tyler Toffoli and Micheal Ferland remained “unfit to play” after suffering undisclosed injuries in the Wild series.
KEY MATCHUP — Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson shooting on Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington. Pettersson edged runner-up Binnington in voting to win last year’s Calder Cup in their rookie seasons.
THE BIG QUESTION — Can Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko recover his scoring touch? A five-time 30-goal scorer, Tarasenko played only 10 regular-season games because of October shoulder surgery. The NHL’s four-month pause was a recovery boon for the Russian, but he didn’t record a point in three seeding-pool games.
PLAYOFF HISTORY — Vancouver hasn’t claimed a Cup, but reached the finals three times (1982, 1994, 2011). The Blues have made the playoffs eight of the nine years winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2019.
COACHES’ PLAYOFF HISTORY — Prior to navigating the Blues to last year’s Cup win, Berube’s playoff experience as a head coach was limited to a first-round appearance in 2014 with the Philadelphia Flyers. Green makes his playoff debut as a head coach. The two men have a combined 145 playoff games between them as players, but neither won a Cup.
REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS — The Blues topped the Western Conference (42-19-10), while the Canucks ranked seventh (36-27-6).
SEASON SERIES — Vancouver went 2-0-1 versus St. Louis, with a 3-1 win Jan. 27 and a 4-3 shootout victory Oct. 17. The Blues won 2-1 in OT on Nov. 5.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press