August 22, 2020

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Ed Willes: Confident Canucks learning the best way — by doing

Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom makes the first period save on Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom makes the first period save on Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

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After the final buzzer sounds, coaches go through a ritual of searching the game sheet for statistical trends that reflect positively on an aspect of their team’s performance.

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Some nights — and the Vancouver Canucks have had a lot over the past five years — that search is a painful exercise. But after Friday night’s series-clinching win over the St. Louis Blues, Travis Green didn’t have to look hard to find things that pleased him.

The Canucks’ head coach could point to two five-on-five goals by his nominal fourth line, a goal from the third line and another goal from a five-man mix-and-match configuration of Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brandon Sutter, Quinn Hughes and Troy Stecher.

He could point to Pettersson’s two assists, which left him tied for the NHL’s post-season scoring lead with Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, or the goal and assist from Jay Beagle, who is not tied for the scoring lead.

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Then there were the 27 shots his team blocked, seven by Alex Edler, which isn’t surprising, and one by Brock Boeser, which is. Or the 34 saves on 36 shots by goalie Jacob Markstrom. Or Edler’s 24:46 of ice time after he missed the third period of Game 5 of the series with a ghastly cut to his ear. Or a rock-solid 18:33 for Jordie Benn, who was in quarantine two weeks ago.

Green, in short, could find some contribution from every player in his lineup and, on this night, the healthy scratches probably had a big game as well.

“ To beat a team like (the Blues) or to have success in the playoffs, you have to have contributions throughout your lineup,” Green said after the Canucks’ 6-2 win. “With our team, every night someone is stepping up. That’s what we love about our team.”

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And it could be others are starting to love the Canucks as well.

Canucks defenceman Oscar Fantenberg and goalie Jacob Markstrom squeeze out St. Louis Blues winger David Perron during Game 6 of their NHL Western Conference first-round series on Aug. 21, 2020 at Rogers Place in Edmonton. The Canucks won 6-2 to eliminate the Blues in six games. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

Friday night, the too-young, too-inexperienced Canucks dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champs with a comprehensive, top-to-bottom performance that put an exclamation mark on their series win. There were big things — Markstrom and Pettersson — and little things like the shot blocks and the resuscitation of Jake Virtanen.

But the sum total of the past 10 days is the Canucks seem to have announced themselves as one of the NHL’s good young teams and a threat this playoff season.

That, at least, was the message out of their post-game Zoom session. And after Game 6, who could argue with them?

“You figure out what it takes to win in the playoffs and the only way to do that is be in the playoffs,” said Beagle, whose post-season pedigree showed in this series. “It’s a great learning experience, but I’ve said from the beginning this is a special and dangerous team.”

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Especially when players like Tyler Motte scored as many goals in the final two games of the series (4) as he did in the regular season.

“It’s the commitment,” said Motte. “It’s the will to pay the price. You see a lot of guys blocking shots, some guys you don’t expect. (Boeser) had a couple tonight. (Hughes) had a few in Game 5.

“Guys are laying it on the line. They’re committed to the D-zone and that’s what it takes to win.”

Defenceman Troy Stecher greets teammates Brandon Sutter and Elias Pettersson after scoring in the second period of Game 6 of their NHL Western Conference first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Aug. 21, 2020. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

OK, it helps when you’ve got the goalie — and over the life of the series, Markstrom was the biggest difference between the two teams. HIs triple-crown numbers don’t exactly jump out at you. But he’s the only goalie in the post-season with seven wins and turned the series against the Blues when he stole Game 5.

Night-in, night-out, he provides a baseline performance that gives the Canucks a chance to win. He’s also the best goalie still standing in the West and that will be the Canucks’ edge against the Vegas Golden Knights in the next round.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Beagle said of Markstrom. “But elite goaltending, that’s something that’s huge. That’s your backbone and we have that with Marky.”

“It’s just so much fun to play hockey right now,” said Markstrom. “You win a series like this and it’s pure joy. This is a stepping zone. Now we need to take a couple more steps.”

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It also helps that Pettersson has quietly driven the offence in his first exposure to the grind of playoff hockey.

“I don’t think he’s under the radar,” Green said of the 21-year-old centre. “I think he’s front and centre. Teams are trying to get their best guys out against him. We’re playing him with different guys. But he’s more than capable of playing against anyone in the league.”

And now he and his colleagues face the Knights, a team that, theoretically, is faster and deeper than the Blues. There will be doubters, those who view the Canucks’ win over the Blues as a random act and not the work of a legitimate contender.

But those doubters don’t exist in the Canucks’ dressing room.

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