Qualifying round preview: Analyzing the Vancouver vs. Minnesota matchup
Vegas has defeated Minnesota in regulation only once but has never lost in regulation to Vancouver.
The Vegas Golden Knights will face St. Louis, Colorado and Dallas in the upcoming round robin tournament, the results of which will determine conference seeding heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which are set to begin Aug. 11.
But most Western Conference teams that just made the trek to the Edmonton bubble will be facing elimination in best-of-five qualifying series. As we approach the resumption of the NHL season, we’ll take a look at each of the four qualifying series, starting with Vancouver vs. Minnesota.
Minnesota won two out of three games from this year’s season series. It’s a relatively even matchup on paper, all things considered; in many cases, one team’s strength is the other team’s weakness, which should make for an interesting series.
The Vancouver Canucks finished the 2019-20 regular season with a 36-27-6 record and a points percentage of .565, which was good for third in the Pacific Division and seventh in the Western Conference.
Vancouver has missed the playoffs in four straight seasons and in five out of the last six years. The Canucks will aim to advance to the first round by defeating the 10th-seeded Minnesota Wild (35-27-7) in the qualifying round.
One thing they will look to rely on is their offense, as they averaged 3.25 goals per game thanks in part to a very strong power play (24.2 percent). The Canucks managed a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill (80.5 percent) and finished 19th in goals against per game (3.10).
The Canucks started off strong, going 8-3-1 in October and posting winning records in three out of the five full months of the season. It was an inconsistent year, but the Canucks never went more than four games without a win. Vancouver’s 5-4 overtime win against Vegas in late December kicked off a season-high seven-game winning streak, but the Canucks finished the season going 6-9-1, ultimately ending on a 2-5-0 stretch.
Vancouver had four players with 20-plus goals and seven with double digits; four Canucks scored 50 or more points, and six topped 40.
J.T. Miller, who came over in a trade from Tampa Bay last June, led the team in scoring with a career-best 72 points. Budding superstar Elias Pettersson finished second on the team with his second straight 66-point campaign; the 21-year-old Swede did not experience any sort of sophomore slump and reportedly has gotten stronger over the last few months, which should make him even more dynamic.
The Canucks’ young core also features Bo Horvat, who was named captain earlier this season, as well as sniper Brock Boeser, who should come into the playoffs with a chip on his shoulder after being involved in trade rumors leading up to training camp. Defenseman Quinn Hughes was nominated for the Calder Memorial Trophy after leading all rookies in scoring with 53 points.
Tanner Pearson scored 21 goals in his first full season with Vancouver, and Tyler Toffoli found immediate success upon arriving in Vancouver at the deadline. He recorded six goals and 10 points in 10 games on the top line with Miller and Pettersson.
The team’s group of bottom-six forwards is quite crowded, which could lead to some interesting decisions. It’s possible that Jake Virtanen, who potted 18 goals during the regular season, could be a healthy scratch for Game 1 against Minnesota. Zack MacEwen could make his way into the lineup instead, though there are other options, like Loui Eriksson, Tyler Motte, etc.
That being said, Micheal Ferland appears poised to return after suffering from concussion symptoms and missing most of the season. The physical winger was one of the standout performers in Vancouver’s two-week training camp.
The Canucks finished the season with the fourth-best power play in the league, which converted on 24.2 percent of its opportunities.
Boeser was demoted to the second unit when Toffoli came over from Los Angeles in February, which is an indication of just how strong that top unit is. The Canucks led the league in power-play goals per game (0.79) after the deadline and went on a 13-for-42 tear to close out the season.
This should be a key advantage in this series as Minnesota struggled on the penalty kill, finishing 25th with a 77.2 percent effectiveness rate.
Another clear advantage the Canucks have is in net.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom had surgery in late February but is healthy and ready to go, which is critical for Vancouver’s playoff hopes. Markstrom was one of the most consistent goalies in the NHL this season; if not for his play, the Canucks would not have been in the playoff race at all down the stretch.
Markstrom finished the season with a 23-16-4 record along with a 2.75 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and two shutouts.
By contrast, Minnesota had the worst goaltending in the league, and though it’s unclear who will be starting for the Wild, there’s no doubt Vancouver has the decisive edge in the crease.
Markstrom was named to his first All-Star Game this season, and many had him in consideration for the Vezina. He could be the difference in this series.
The Canucks may be top-heavy, but there’s no denying they have a lot of offensive firepower and one of the stronger top-six groups in the league.
Pettersson and Boeser are two of the best young players in the game, and though Horvat often flies under the radar, he’s put up four straight seasons with 20-plus goals and can be a two-way force to be reckoned with; he quietly led the team in power-play goals this year with 12.
Miller had a career year and thrived along Pettersson, as did Toffoli in his short stint in Vancouver. Pearson had a solid season as well, and Hughes is quickly becoming one of the top young defensemen in the league.
Whether or not the Canucks will be able to penetrate Minnesota’s stellar defensive system is another question, but they have elite talent at the top.
There’s no question which team holds the edge on the back end in this series, and it’s not Vancouver.
The Canucks gave up 3.10 goals against per game, which was the 10th-highest rate in the league. They also finished with the fifth-highest expected-goals-against-per-60 rate of 2.53 and the fourth-highest Corsi Against per 60 (60.24).
Vancouver’s sub-par play-driving numbers are a byproduct of poor team defense, and the Canucks were one of the worst teams on the rush both offensively and defensively, which could make Minnesota’s defense even more stifling.
Though Hughes is an exciting offensive defenseman with a big career ahead of him, and Alexander Edler is very reliable and plays a lot of tough minutes, the Wild have the advantage with a superior blue line.
Vancouver relied heavily on Markstrom to cover up defensive shortcomings, but there’s only so much a goalie can do in the postseason against a seasoned team.
The young Canucks roster should have fresh legs after the extended layoff, but the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season, and many of the players on the team have never made it to the postseason or have very little playoff experience.
Vancouver does have multiple Stanley Cup winners, including Toffoli and Pearson, who won with Los Angeles in 2014, as well as Beagle, who won in 2018 with Washington.
But nerves can be a factor, and that’s not something the Wild need to worry about. Minnesota made the playoffs in six straight seasons before falling short last year, and there are seven Wild players with at least 40 games of playoff experience.
Matching up against Vegas
The Canucks went 1-1-0 in two games against the Knights this season and have an all-time record of 2-7-1 against Vegas. Should these teams meet in the playoffs, the edge seemingly goes to Vegas, at least based on past results. Also, the Knights have never lost to Vancouver in regulation in the regular season, so there’s that.
The Knights struggled on the penalty kill during the regular season (76.6 percent, good for 27th overall), so Vancouver’s top-notch power play would be an area of focus for Vegas in a potential series. Though Vegas’ goaltending wasn’t consistent during the regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner have the potential to be one of the better playoff duos in the league. Plus, both regular-season contests were high-scoring, so goaltending might not end up being a huge factor anyway.
The Knights are one of the few teams that can rival Vancouver’s top six, and Vegas has plenty of playoff experience despite being such a young franchise. Overall, this could be a favorable matchup for Vegas should these teams meet in the playoffs.
Here’s a breakdown of how the two regular-season contests between these clubs played out.
Dec. 15, 2019: Vegas vs. Vancouver (6-3 VGK)
Nick Holden opened the scoring 2:22 into the contest with a wrist-shot goal that got deflected on the way in. It took the Canucks less than two minutes to even things up at 1-1, however. Fleury made a great point-blank save, but Pettersson put home his own rebound with a diving one-handed sweep.
Valentin Zykov scored his first of the season to give Vegas a 2-1 lead after chipping in a rebound in the crease on the power play. Vegas then extended its lead with goals from Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone in the second period; it was the 100th goal of Marchessault’s career as he finished a beautiful tic-tac-toe play.
Despite two third-period strikes by Vancouver, a key breakaway goal for Max Pacioretty helped offset the Canucks’ comeback efforts.
Pacioretty finished the game, Vegas’ 100th home game in franchise history, with four points.
Dec. 19, 2019: Vegas @ Vancouver (5-4 VAN, OT)
The Knights entered the game with an 8-0-1 all-time record against Vancouver.
In a game filled with lead changes, the Canucks took a 2-0 lead just over seven minutes into the first period on a power-play goal from Pearson. Marchessault cut the deficit in half when he cleaned up a rebound in the crease, but Vancouver regained its two-goal lead when Pettersson scored in the final 28 seconds of the frame.
Vegas knotted things up at 3-3 with the only two goals of the second period. First, Reilly Smith finished off a strong passing play by the top line, and then Holden scored his second goal in two games against Vancouver.
Pettersson scored his second of the game just over nine minutes into the third period, giving Vancouver the lead once again. However, Stone kept the Knights alive when he tied the game in the final five minutes of the third.
Christopher Tanev scored the game-winner just 90 seconds into overtime after getting past Pacioretty, receiving a leading saucer feed from Horvat and driving to the net to slip the puck under Fleury’s pads.
Miller — Pettersson — Toffoli
Pearson — Horvat — Boeser
Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Ferland
MacEwen — Beagle — Brandon Sutter
Hughes — Tanev
Edler — Troy Stecher
Oscar Fantenberg — Tyler Myers
The Minnesota Wild began the season as the worst team in the NHL, jumping out to an 0-4-0 start and going 4-9-0 in October. However, though there were rough stretches, the Wild maintained at least a .500 record in every month following. The Wild made a surprising move by firing head coach Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14, but the team finished the season going 8-3-1, winning three out of four games before the NHL pause.
The late-season push helped the Wild squeak into the play-in round despite finishing sixth in the Central Division. Minnesota ultimately finished the season with a 35-27-7 record and a points percentage of .558, making the Wild the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference.
A huge part of the team’s turnaround was the offensive explosion by Kevin Fiala, which made the Wild one of the hottest teams leading up to the pause.
The young forward finished the season with a whopping 14 goals and 26 points in the final 18 games, a stretch that included 10 multi-point performances. His 23 goals on the year tied a previous career high, though he hit the mark in 16 fewer games. He set a new personal best in assists (31), points (54) and power-play points (18) and ended up leading the team in scoring.
He was one of two players who hit the 20-goal mark, along with Zach Parise (25). Fiala finished second on the team in assists behind Ryan Suter, who had one of the best offensive seasons of his career. With 48 points in 69 games, Suter was on pace to easily top his previous career high of 51 points.
Fiala, Suter, Eric Staal and Parise were the four Wild skaters with 40-plus points, while Mats Zuccarello fell just shy with 37. It was a disappointing year for Zuccarello, who was in the first year of his five-year, $30 million contract. However, he finished the season with seven points in the last 11 games and will look to turn the page on one of the least productive seasons of his career.
The team’s big move of the season was trading forward Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh a few weeks before the deadline; in addition to top prospect Calen Addison and a first-round pick, the Wild also received forward Alex Galchenyuk in the deal. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, though he’s an unlikely candidate to be re-signed. He got off to a decent start with seven points in 14 games with Minnesota, but the former No. 3 overall pick has a lot to prove moving forward.
That being said, the players with the most to prove are, without a doubt, the goaltenders.
Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock made up the worst goalie tandem in the NHL. Stalock eventually took the starter’s gig from Dubnyk and had the best season of his career, going 20-11-4 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. But that’s in large part because he finished the season strong, winning 11 out of his last 18 starts after Jan. 1 with a .920 save percentage in that span.
Even so, considering the defense in front of him, the overall numbers were not good enough, and goaltending held the Wild back significantly.
Dubnyk’s numbers were much worse, as he went 12-15-2 with a 3.35 goals-against average and .890 save percentage. Among goalies who played at least 28 games, Dubnyk ranked dead last in both categories.
The Wild were one of the best defensive teams in the NHL this season. Even when the numbers didn’t necessarily reflect it, it was a side effect of poor goaltending rather than inefficient defense. The team finished with 1.95 expected goals against per 60, which was good for first in the league.
The Wild have one of the best top-four groups in the NHL with Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin. Even third-pairing defensemen Brad Hunt (remember him?) and especially Carson Soucy had solid seasons. Spurgeon and Brodin are criminally underrated, and Dumba started to heat up as the season wore on in one of the unluckiest seasons in a long time.
The Wild were exceptional at suppressing quality chances, particularly in the slot and on the cycle.
That does not bode well for the Canucks, who rely on the cycle to generate much of their offense.
The Wild have a disciplined structure, and their style could frustrate and overwhelm Vancouver.
Though the Canucks have the upper hand in top-six elite talent, the Wild have more depth at the forward position.
Despite having only two players reach the 20-goal mark, Minnesota had eight players with at least 10 goals.
Fiala was the hottest player in the league at the end of the season, and Minnesota was more than able to put the puck into the net. In fact, the Wild finished 12th in the NHL with 3.16 goals per game.
Plus, the Wild can roll four lines, which is a luxury Vancouver does not share. Being able to spread out the ice time, especially early on, could be an advantage as players adjust to game pace after the long break. It also gives Minnesota the advantage in matchups, especially as Joel Eriksson Ek has become one of the better young checking forwards in the game; the 23-year-old likely will line up against the Pettersson line in the series.
Five of Minnesota’s bottom-six forwards combined for 126 points this season. After all, the Wild had a fourth-line player with 14 goals (Ryan Donato), and Marcus Foligno, one of the club’s best defensive forwards, chipped in 11 goals and 25 points. Even Ryan Hartman is an under-the-radar offensive option and finished the year with 20 points. Plus, one of the Wild’s extra forwards will be Gerald Mayhew, who led the AHL in scoring this season with 39 goals in 49 games.
With Galchenyuk back at center, Zuccarello getting a fresh start and Eriksson Ek capable of being a sleeper X-factor in this series, the Wild have enough scoring depth and experience to be a very dangerous team.
There is no weakness greater for the Wild than goaltending, and it remains a question mark heading into the series, especially since it’s unclear who will be the starter.
Stalock eventually took over the crease, but he’s a career backup and didn’t have a strong season, especially given the level of talent in front of him.
Dubnyk could benefit from the five-month absence, especially since his season was difficult both on and off the ice. He has the experience and could be the netminder Minnesota goes with for Game 1, though he doesn’t have a proven track record in the playoffs and likely won’t be given a long leash after his play this season.
Dubnyk and Stalock combined to give Minnesota the worst goaltending in the league, and it wasn’t close. Both finished in the bottom four in goals saved above expectation, which takes shot quality into account. Dubnyk was dead last in the NHL (-27.49), while Stalock had the fourth-worst mark at -16.64. Minnesota goaltenders combined for an .897 save percentage.
But it could also be Kaapo Kahkonen, the AHL’s goaltender of the year, who gets the nod for the Wild. Kahkonen is one of four goalies the Wild brought to Edmonton as they continue to evaluate their options. He played well in limited action, but it’s risky to go with the unknown, especially to start out.
No matter what, the Wild need at least average goaltending if they want to have a good chance to compete in this series. Even with one of the best defenses in the league, if the goalie doesn’t come up with the easy saves, it’s hard to win games, particularly against a dynamic offense and especially in a playoff setting. The fact that it’ll be a shortened five-game series means that the Wild can’t afford to have a few “off” games from their goalies.
Matching up against Vegas
The Minnesota Wild have had the Golden Knights’ number from the beginning.
It wasn’t until this season that the Knights were able to defeat the Wild in regulation, and the Wild currently hold a 6-1-1 all-time record against Vegas.
Needless to say, the Knights have had a much tougher time matching up against Minnesota than Vancouver, at least in the regular season. Even though Vegas holds an edge in various categories, it has been one of those matchups that, in many cases, simply defies logic. Vegas struggles with Minnesota’s defensive structure, and the Knights have even made the Wild’s goalies look great on several occasions.
The Wild had great success on the power play against Vegas this season, scoring four goals in two games, so that would be another area of focus.
At this point, it could be a confidence issue for Vegas, though one would think the Knights could put that aside in a playoff setting. In any case, a Vancouver series could be more favorable for the Knights than a matchup against the Wild, at least based on past results.
Here’s an overview of the two Golden Knights vs. Wild games from the 2019-20 regular season.
Dec. 17, 2019: Vegas vs. Minnesota (3-2 VGK)
Zuccarello kicked off the scoring with a power-play strike at the tail end of the first period, scoring with under a minute left in the frame.
Chandler Stephenson tied his career high in goals (6) when he tied the game at 1-1 midway through the second period.
WHAT. A. PASS.— Knights On Ice (@knightsonice) December 18, 2019
NEW GUY TIES IT.#VegasBorn pic.twitter.com/pDrt6QOR9E
Much like the first period, the lamp was lit in the final minute of the frame. This time, however, it was Vegas that scored, as Shea Theodore gave the Knights a 2-1 edge with just 10 seconds left in the second.
Tomas Nosek added to that lead with what turned out to be the game-winner 6:16 into the third period. William Carrier set a new career high in points (10) with an assist on the play.
Though Parise scored with 1:15 left in regulation, the Knights came away victorious. It was Vegas’ first franchise regulation win and first franchise home win against the Wild.
Feb. 11, 2020: Vegas @ Minnesota (4-0 MIN)
In an uninspired effort, the Knights were shut out by Stalock and the Wild, suffering a 4-0 defeat in Minnesota.
The Wild scored two power-play goals in the first period and doubled their lead with two goals in the second, including another power-play strike by Parise.
Vegas finished 0-for-4 on the power play and 2-for-5 on the penalty kill. Fleury gave up four goals on 20 shots before getting pulled.
Jordan Greenway — Staal — Fiala
Parise — Eriksson Ek — Luke Kunin
Foligno — Galchenyuk — Zuccarello
Donato — Mikko Koivu — Hartman
Suter — Spurgeon
Dumba — Brodin
Soucy — Hunt
Vancouver vs. Minnesota schedule
Game 1: Sunday Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Tuesday Aug. 4 at 7:45 p.m.
Game 3: Thursday Aug. 6
Game 4: Friday Aug. 7
Game 5: Sunday Aug. 9
Who do you think will win this series?