With the recent announcement for the NHL’s Return to Play Plan, we preview the series between the Minnesota Wild and the Vancouver Canucks
Over the past few months, there has been a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unanswered questions. Most difficult to predict was if Interim Coach Dean Evason and the Minnesota Wild would get to continue their impressive run. Just focusing on the return to play process, the most important question was if the Wild would get a chance to compete for a playoff spot once and if the season resumes. If Wild Captain Mikko Koivu does retire after this season, it would have been such a shame for his career to end without one last chance at competing for the Stanley Cup.
After a lot of speculation regarding return to play, Michael Russo confirmed Tuesday that the Wild will be playing the Vancouver Canucks in a best of five “play in series” assuming the season resumes this summer. Not only is it fantastic that the Wild get a chance at making the playoffs and that Koivu at the very minimum gets one more shot at the Stanley Cup, but it will give Kevin Fiala a chance to continue his breakout season that caught massive steam during the second half of the season.
Even though this “play in series” is not technically the playoffs, the Wild and Canucks have postseason experience against each other. Let us take a look down memory lane, 17 years exactly to when the Wild and Canucks faced off in the 2003 Western Conference Semi-Finals. The Wild came back from a 3-1 series deficit before making a remarkable comeback which eventually saw the Wild win in seven games.
Fast forward to the 2019-2020 season where the Wild played the Canucks three times. The Wild won two of the three games, the final game featured a very nice shootout game-winning goal by Alex Galchenyuk. The season series between the Wild and Canucks featured a very even matchup, even though the Canucks have more star power, the Wild’s defensive-minded game matched up well. The Wild and Canucks both had 9 goals each in the season series which displayed the even matchup.
A very interesting piece from by Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, the Canucks are favored by the smallest of margins, current projections provide the Canucks with a 51.8% chance of beating the Wild. These margins may hint to not just a very even matchup but a series that will favor the team with the better goaltender in the series.
Now shifting to the more statistical and analysis side of the series. Starting with team stats, the Wild and Canucks have similar numbers. Despite the lack of star power offensively for the Wild compared to the Canucks, the Wild have a 3.12 Goals For per 60min (GF/60) compared to the Canucks 3.2. Similarly, despite the Canucks having a top goaltender in Markstrom this season, the Wild have a 3.12 Goals Against per 60min (GA/60) compared to the Canucks 3.05. The Wild has a 2.55 Expected Goals For per 60 min (xGF/60) and a 2.39 Expected Goals Against per 60 min (xGA/60) meanwhile the Canucks have a 2.8 xGF/60 and 3.03 xGA/60.
These numbers can be quite shocking as the numbers are incredibly similar despite that the Wild lack star power up front and have been absent of reliable goaltending on the backend. These analytics display that the Wild are a great team when it comes to finishing ability, yet the lack of reliable goaltending on the backend hinders the Wild as the defense is great when it comes to limiting chances offensively. The Canucks as well are very good when it comes to finishing ability and have reliable goaltending on the backend.
When it comes to offense, it is clear the Canucks have the advantage with the star power from Pettersson, Boeser, and Miller. There are also players like Horvat, Toffoli, Virtanen, and even Pearson who can come out of nowhere. Although the Wild have better depth, the lack of star power gives Vancouver the advantage offensively.
Kevin Fiala may just be the difference-maker in the series; if Fiala doesn’t produce the way he was before the pause, I don’t see the Wild winning the series unless the Wild get a Jordan Binnington-like performance this year. I think the Wild veterans will be very important in this series, with all the time off, will Parise, Staal, Koivu, and Zuccarello be productive from the start or a little rusty?
The Wild has one of the best defensive cores in the NHL which could also be a difference-maker in this series. Although the Canucks have a top defenseman in rookie Quinn Hughes already, the Wild has a way better defensive core. With the emergence of Carson Soucy, the Wild have arguably five top 4 defensemen meanwhile the Canucks have heavily leaned on rookie Hughes. Tyler Myers was a pretty good addition for the Canucks, but he has struggled this season. Overall, the Wild’s top four of Suter, Spurgeon, Brodin, and Dumba may be too much for the Canucks to handle.
Goaltending will likely decide this series if. Using Evolving Hockey’s goals saved above-expected metric which takes into account shot quality, Markstrom ranked 10th among all NHL starters with a 3.77 GSAx meanwhile Dubnyk ranked dead last in the NHL among all NHL goaltenders with a -27.49 GSAx. With Stalock not too far behind him, bringing up Kaapo Kahkonen, who was named the best AHL goaltender of the year, could be the solution. Markstrom finished the season with a .918 save percentage and Dubnyk ended with a .890 save percentage. The Canucks have the better goaltender which is a key advantage in the series, I think the Wild’s best bet is giving Kahkonen the start.
Special teams may also be a key aspect of the series. The Canucks have the edge when it comes to special teams, their 24.1% powerplay and 80.5% penalty kill is better than the Wild’s 21.3% powerplay and 77.2% penalty kill.
My prediction is this best of five series between the Wild and Canucks will take five games with the Wild on top.