The wait is officially over. Yeah, yeah the Minnesota Wild played an exhibition game on Wednesday, but that was an exhibition game. Now, the Wild are playing actual meaningful hockey.
Tonight, the Minnesota Wild are back in the playoffs — seventh appearance in the last eight years — and face off against a group of young bucks in Vancouver. It’s a matchup against apparent opposites in the veteran defensive Minnesota Wild and the young offensively minded Vancouver Canucks.
During the regular season, the Wild edged the Canucks 2-1 in the season series. The last time the two teams squared off, Vancouver was atop the Pacific Division and the Wild were just starting to climb out of the basement of the Western Conference standings. However, at the stoppage, Vancouver only finished one point above Minnesota in the standings.
The Canucks were led by 21-year-old Swedish superstar Elias Pettersson, who scored just under a point per game with 66 points in 68 games. The team’s leader in goals, assists, and points was actually newcomer J.T. Miller, who finished the regular season with 27 goals and 72 points.
The forwards aren’t the only ones who can chip in offensively either, as rookie Quinn Hughes has already cemented himself as one of the top defensemen in the league already after a fantastic campaign as a rookie. The former Michigan Wolverine finished with eight goals and 53 points, earning himself the privilege to call himself a Calder finalist.
With all that firepower offensively, it shouldn’t surprise you that the Canucks finished the regular season with the fourth-best power play in the league, converting at a scary-lethal 24.2 percent of the time. So, shutting down the power play and limiting their chances by taking as few penalties as possible will be a key part of this series for Minnesota.
In net, the Canucks boast one of the league’s best goalies this season in Jacob Markstrom. The 6’6 Swedish netminder put up career numbers between the pipes and was arguably the team’s MVP throughout the regular season. Of goaltenders that played over 40 games this season, Markstrom ranked fourth in save percentage (.918) and 10th in goals against average.
With all that being said, it has been four and a half months since either team has played an actual meaningful game. This series, like the rest of the qualifying matchups, is considered a coin toss. You can truly envision either team winning this series.
With it being a five-game series, Game 1 will be huge. Per NHL Public Relations, teams that win Game 1 in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Playoffs series own an all-time series record of 68-15 (.819). So yeah, game one is huge.
1. Can the Wild shut down the Canucks top six?
Containing the top six forward crop of Vancouver will be a daunting task for the Wild without a doubt. If the Wild want any chance at moving onto the next round, they must limit the chances from the likes of Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson.
Wild head coach Dean Evason will surely try and matchup Joel Eriksson Ek to the Pettersson line as much as he can, but in Game 1 and 2, Vancouver is technically the “home” team and gets last change. Thus, allowing them to send the Pettersson line out against any Wild line.
It will be hard to keep them at bay, but if the Wild can find a way to limit the Canucks’ top six to two or less goals on Sunday night, they will stand a good chance at coming away with a win. Shutting them down should be the top goal for the Wild come puck drop.
2. Will Kevin Fiala pick up where he left off?
Everybody in Minnesota knows it. Kevin Fiala appears to be the game-breaker ex-general manager Paul Fenton deemed him to be. In the second half of this season the Swiss winger really came into his own and played some of the best individual hockey we have seen from a skater in a Wild uniform since the days of Marian Gaborik. Fiala led the club with 54 points during the regular season while scoring 14 goals and 26 points in 18 games to finish the season before the stoppage.
In the exhibition game against the Colorado Avalanche, he was held off the scoresheet, but that didn’t mean he didn’t impact the game. Almost every shift he was on the ice, you knew it. He made a couple nifty moves and was shooting the puck like a mad man. He had a team-high 15 shot attempts, although only six made it on net as the other nine were either blocked or missed the net.
So I beg the question, will we see the same Kevin Fiala we have all come to love in Minnesota?
3. Will the Wild score first?
Yesterday’s NHL slate played five fantastic games of hockey to kick off the qualifying round of this summer’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of those five games, four of the five teams that scored the first goal of the game became the eventual winners of Game 1. Keeping this in mind, it will be a huge help for a defensively-minded team like the Wild to break the ice first. This will allow the Wild to try and stick to their style of hockey rather than chasing the Canucks all night and trying to catch back up on the scoreboard. If the Wild want to win Game 1, scoring the first goal will be a pivotal step.