August 07, 2020

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Ed Willes: This series will be remembered for reasons other than playing in August

Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, left, and Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes chase a loose puck during the third period of Western Conference qualifying at Rogers Place on Aug. 6 in Edmonton.
Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, left, and Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes chase a loose puck during the third period of Western Conference qualifying at Rogers Place on Aug. 6 in Edmonton. Photo by Perry Nelson /USA TODAY Sports

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EDMONTON — The Vancouver Canucks, who appear to have taken to this playoff thing all the way around, went right to the cliché handbook before Game 4 of their series with the Minnesota Wild on Friday night.

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The final game is the hardest to win, they said. They’ll be a desperate team and we’ll have to play our best game, they said. This is still a long series, they said.

Now all that, while excruciatingly banal, is true. But so’s this: If the Canucks had written down everything they hoped to take out of their first post-season series in five years, they’d have ticked every box by now. It’s not just the 2-1 lead in games. It’s not just goalie Jacob Markstrom’s shutout in Game 3. And it’s not just the performance of the special teams, which have gone a long way in changing the complexion of this series.

All that’s important but the larger development lies elsewhere in a certain indefinable area that has to do with growth and maturity. To date, 10 of the Canucks have suited up in the first post-season games of their career and while its impossible to quantify what they’ve learned to date, the evidence suggests it’s meaningful.

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Those players have also played a leading role in bringing their team to the brink of advancement. By the time you read this, you’ll know if coach Travis Green’s squad completed their mission. But no matter where this series goes from here, the young Canucks will be carrying around its effects for a while.

“They’re growing, that’s for sure,” said Green, another playoff rookie who’s acquitted himself well. “We have a young group who haven’t played these kind of games. I think every game gets harder to win as well.

“We’ve talked about it for a few years that our players need to gain experience in these types of games. But we’re just not here to get experience. We want to win these games and this series.”

Again, we won’t know if the Canucks advance until about four in the morning when Game 4 concludes in Edmonton. But what’s transpired to date for the Canucks, both collectively and individually, is noteworthy.

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For starters, they’ve looked to be the more experienced team that, given their lineup, is a neat trick. In both Games 2 and 3, the Wild were visibly agitated by the strict officiating standard. Never mind the power plays were 14-13 for the Canucks over those two games.

Wild coach Dean Evason had to call out his troops after both outings for losing their focus. Kevin Fiala, the Wild’s most dangerous forward by a considerable margin, also took a double minor late in the third period when he precipitated a scrum by shooting the puck after the whistle, then bumping into Markstrom. That meant he wasn’t available for a late Wild power play.

So there’s that. But the Canucks’ team game, especially in Game 3, had all the earmarks of an experienced, battle-tested group. Owing to the 12:30 p.m. start, it was clear this would be a ragged, arrhythmic affair but, instead of forcing the issue, the Canucks played a patient game and finally broke through on Brock Boeser’s power-play goal midway through the second period.

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Markstrom, meanwhile, was air tight but the statistic that jumped off the scoresheet was 22 blocks for the Canucks as a team, including seven by the underappreciated Tyler Motte.

“They almost put their life on the line,” Antoine Roussel said after Game 3.

Proving once again the post-season isn’t the time for understatement.

With all that, the biggest story for the Canucks concerns the players who are driving the bus and that applies to this series and the team’s long-term development. A review of the Game 3 scoresheet reveals Quinn Hughes assisted on all three Canucks’ goals and Boeser and Elias Pettersson both picked up a goal and an assist, which is telling.

But it’s the way the young core has produced that’s the headline here.

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Pettersson has been a revelation. Built along the lines of a one-iron, the belief was he could be pushed out of the series and the Wild certainly endorsed that presumption. He was steamrolled by Zach Parise in Game 2. He was pushed headfirst into the boards on a dangerous play by Ryan Hartman in Game 3. But, far from shying away from the violence, he seems to have drawn strength from it without detracting from his skill game.

“You can tell Petey has some bite to him,” Tyler Myers said approvingly.

Green, meanwhile, has raved about the growth in Boeser’s game, how he’s evolving from a sniper to a gritty, well-rounded pro. Both his goals have come from the battleground area in front of the net.

“What I love right now is he’s really bought into the other parts of the game,” said Green.

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As for Hughes, he has assisted on the last four Canucks goals before Game 4 while leading his team in ice time through the first three games as a 20-year-old rookie.

Read that last sentence again slowly.

The point is no one knew how the Canucks’ young stars were going to react to the hurly-burly of the post-season, especially against a Wild team that is loaded with veterans. It figures those vets will still be heard from and this series can still take an unforeseen turn.

But it’s also impossible to measure everything the men of Green have gained from their first exposure to the post-season. One way or another, this series will be remembered by this group for reasons other than playing in August in an empty building.

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