For the Vancouver Canucks this season it was all about taking the next step, which we took to just mean getting to the playoffs and leaving them some valuable lessons. Even an exit in the first round would not have been unacceptable.
Now we wonder how far this can go. The Canucks, a team led by a young core and without much playoff experience even from its 30-year-old goaltender, have just come off their latest setback – a six-game triumph over the St. Blues. Louis that we might one day look back as having more of a franchise defining moment. Their reward? A second-round game against the Vegas Golden Knights, who were finalists just two years ago and are current favorites to win it all in 2020.
“With Vegas, they have a lot of strength,” said Canucks coach Travis Green. “Speed is part of it. They have talent, size. There are probably a lot of people who picked Vegas as one of the Cup finalists.
“The belief has just been installed in your group. Some of it talks about it, and not just the good stuff either. Be honest. But I think our group has had confidence in him since the start of the season. I don’t think anybody picked us to make the playoffs last season and yet in the locker room to a man I think we felt capable of making the playoffs. I think the belief started there.
Look up and down the lineup and you’ll see someone who has had a key moment for these Canucks so far. From Elias Pettersson, who is second behind Nathan MacKinnon in the playoffs with 13 points in 10 games, to Tyler Motte, an unlikely scorer who had back-to-back games of two goals to close the Blues series. From the electrifying Quinn Hughes, who opens everybody Eyes on the fact that you have to get used to the idea of being a Norris candidate before long, to Alexander Edler and Christopher Tanev, two grizzled veterans who are second and fourth in blocked shots this playoffs.
Jake Virtanen scored the tying goal in the critical comeback of Game 5 against St. Louis. Troy Stecher scored two winners against the defending champions.
The Canucks have gotten through the Blues physical and tight controls and are now drawing a higher-paced team in Vegas that has the league’s best 5-to-5 shooting differential in the regular season and playoffs this season. Vancouver ranked 25th in the regular season and is 20th in the playoffs by that measure. So, of course, the same questions that were asked about them in the last round are raised again.
How can this inexperienced team that are supposed to struggle with depth hold on to an opponent whose window of victory is so clearly open right now?
“When you hear rumors that we’re the underdogs you obviously want to prove people wrong,” said captain Bo Horvat, who himself played two straight games to open the St. Louis series. “I think that’s a big part of what makes people prove people wrong and prove to themselves that you can do it.”
Perhaps – perhaps – the Canucks could even start their second-round series with an early advantage. Ahead of Saturday’s Game 1 between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars, Sportsnet’s Kevin Bieksa noted that often the team that starts with a shorter break comes out a bit sharper and that’s exactly how it looks. West’s other semi-final has started. Dallas, on a day’s rest, quickly took the lead and was the best team from top to bottom in their 5-3 victory.
Vegas enters the second inning with four days off after knocking out the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, while the Canucks only had Saturday to recharge.
“Kinda happy to just start over,” Brandon Sutter said. “Maybe an extra day off would have been nice, but… when you ride and play well, you just want to keep going.” I think everyone seems to be. Obviously when you win you feel confident, I don’t feel like you need too many days of practice. I am ready to continue playing. ”
It’s the furthest a Canucks team has come in the postseason since the 2011 Stanley Cup Final race. This team was in its prime and got there after three second-round eliminations in four seasons. If the 2020 Canucks manage to get past Vegas, you could say they’re way ahead of schedule.
I’m not sure anyone would have predicted this last October.