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Inside the matchup: Wild vs. Canucks

Minnesota and Vancouver were remarkably even-matched during the 2019-20 season

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

It has been more than two months since the NHL announced its plans to resume play this summer and nearly five since the Wild played a meaningful hockey game. 

But all of that is about to change.

The League began the first-of-its-kind qualifying round tournament with a full day of action on Saturday and on Sunday, 146 days since Minnesota skated off the ice at the Honda Center in Anaheim with an overtime victory, it will skate onto the ice in Edmonton to begin a best-of-5 series against the Vancouver Canucks. 

The seventh-seeded Canucks and 10-seeded Wild finished the regular season just one point apart in the standings, a testament to just how stacked up the Western Conference was coming down the stretch.

Minnesota won two of the three regular season meetings, including the final two matchups in the month of February, 4-2 at Xcel Energy Center on Feb. 6 and a 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver 13 days later.

Video: Wild on preparing for Vancouver

Just how tight was the season series between the teams?

Vancouver held a 176-175 advantage in total shot attempts, a 90-89 edge in shots on goal and a 9-8 lead in total goals. The two clubs were separated by less than a tenth of a goal in expected goals for (7.98-7.88 for Vancouver) as well. 

How much will any of that matter in a season as upside down and strange as this one? Only time will tell. 


Forwards

Up front, the Wild could start the series with these lines:

Jordan Greenway - Eric Staal - Kevin Fiala
Zach Parise - Joel Eriksson Ek - Luke Kunin
Marcus Foligno - Alex Galchenyuk - Mats Zuccarello
Ryan Donato - Mikko Koivu - Ryan Hartman

Perhaps the biggest key for the Wild will be Fiala, who led the team with 54 points before the shutdown and was on fire the month prior. Over his final 18 games, Fiala scored 14 goals and had 26 points, proving to be a hugely influential player down the stretch.

Video: MIN@ANA: Fiala fires PPG from circle for OT winner

Staal scored one of the Wild's two goals during its exhibition game on Wednesday and would have scored 20 goals in a season for the 13th time in his NHL career. 

Parise led the club with 25 goals and will often play up with Staal and Fiala, including on the power play.

Kunin and Eriksson Ek had career years offensively, with the former ending the regular season on a four-game points streak. Eriksson Ek will likely matchup with Elias Pettersson whenever possible, as his speed and size could help neutralize the skilled Canucks' centerman. 

Foligno, along with Galchenyuk and Zuccarello, were at their best as a line in the final games before the shutdown. Galchenyuk had a goal and an assist in the game in Anaheim and was beginning to look especially comfortable. 

Video: MIN@VAN: Galchenyuk ties game, scores SO winner

Donato was one of the NHL's best at goals per 60 minutes during the regular season, Koivu is motivated in what might be his final crack at a Stanley Cup in an outstanding career and Hartman quietly posted solid numbers (nine goals, 20 points) playing a fourth-line role all season.


Here is a look at how Vancouver could look to start the series:

Tanner Pearson - Bo Horvat - Brock Boeser
J.T. Miller - Elias Pettersson - Tyler Toffoli
Antoine Roussel - Adam Gaudette - Micheal Ferland
Tyler Motte - Jay Beagle - Brandon Sutter

This lineup provides coach Travis Green with plenty of options in terms of in-game adjustments as well. It'd be real easy to swap Boeser, a native of Burnsville, with Toffoli and create a "super line of Miller, Pettersson and Boeser 

Miller has had a breakout campaign in his first season with the Canucks, scoring 27 goals and 45 assists for 72 points, all career bests. All three numbers also tied for the lead or led the club.

Pettersson is perhaps the biggest key to the series for Vancouver. The playmaking centerman also had 27 goals and was also a team-best plus-16.

Horvat finished tied for third on the club with 53 points and is one of the League's best men at winning draws. 

Pearson was also in the midst of a career season when the League hit pause. His 45 points were the most he's had in a single season despite playing in just 69 games.

Toffoli, acquired at the trade deadline from the Los Angeles Kings, was making a big impact with Vancouver, averaging a point per game over his first 10 games with his new club. After a down season in L.A. last season, Toffoli had rebounded in 2019-20, posting a combined 24 goals in 68 games. 

Where the Wild may be able to take advantage of the Canucks up front is on its third and fourth lines, where Minnesota is significantly deeper in terms of offensive upside. 

Roussel and Ferland, who was injured much of the regular season but is healthy now, bring plenty of energy on the third line. Vancouver's fourth line doesn't provide much offense, but all three kill penalties.

If Green needs added offense, he will have available veteran Loui Eriksson, who was healthy scratched in the team's exhibition game. Jake Virtanen was also a scratch in that game despite a solid regular season that saw him score 18 goals and 36 points. 


Defensemen

The Wild's defensive pairs are expected to look like this:

Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin - Matt Dumba
Carson Soucy - Brad Hunt

Suter led Wild defensemen with 48 points but Spurgeon had 12 goals, most among blueliners. And while this pairing will be counted on to chip in with offense, they must be at their best in their own zone because they will likely play big-time minutes. 

Brodin's 28 points during the regular season were the most of his career, but its his skating ability and work in the defensive end that will be critical in this series. Dumba had a slow start to the regular season, but was playing his best at the end. He scored a goal in the exhibition game. 

Soucy is back and healthy after an upper-body injury that likely would have ended his regular season was healed during the layoff. He gives the Wild its biggest and most physical defenseman but also chipped in with seven goals. Hunt scored eight goals in 59 games and will be a key on the team's power play. 


Vancouver's blueline could look like this:

Alexander Edler - Tyler Myers
Quinn Hughes - Chris Tanev
Oscar Fantenberg - Troy Stetcher

Edler and Myers will play a bulk of the heavy defensive minutes. Edler had five goals and 33 points while Myers chipped in six goals and 21 points.

Hughes, a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie, led all NHL rookies with 53 points, becoming just the third defenseman to lead first-year players in points (and first since Brian Leetch). Bobby Orr is the other. Not terrible company. 

The 30-year-old Tanev provides a nice veteran balance with the 20-year-old Hughes. 

Stetcher, a University of North Dakota product, had five goals and was a plus-10.


Goaltenders

As of lunch time on Saturday, Wild coach Dean Evason had not revealed his starting goaltender ... not even the guy who will eventually man the crease in Game 1.

The decision to start either Devan Dubnyk, and his 26 games (all starts) of postseason experience, or Alex Stalock and his four games (one start) may come down to just that ... experience. 

Video: Dean Evason & Alex Stalock on goalie depth

Stalock earned the start in the exhibition game, perhaps a sign of where Evason's head was at on Wednesday. Stalock allowed three goals on 17 shots in half the game, then Dubnyk entered and was a perfect 12 for 12.

In terms of the regular season, Stalock had the better overall year, with a better goals against (2.67 to 3.35) and a better save percentage (.910 to .890). Stalock finished with a 20-11-4 record, while Dubnyk was 12-15-2.

But all of that was months ago. 

For what it's worth, Dubnyk has been at his best at the starts of seasons through his time with the Wild, so with the return to play coming after a 4 1/2 month, offseason-like pause, maybe that's the tell. 

Without question, this will remain competitive for as long as the Wild remains in the postseason, and that's a good thing. 

Vancouver will rely on Jacob Markstrom. The 30-year-old Swede, who fills the cage at 6-foot-6 and 206 pounds, has been remarkably consistent over the past three years, posting goals-against averages between 2.71 and 2.75 each season while stopping 91.2 and 91.8 percent of his shots faced. 

Backing him up is 24-year-old Thatcher Demko. The former Boston College Eagle started 25 games this season won 13 of those contests.

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