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Vancouver Canucks aim to avoid Minnesota Wild smothering in NHL play-in series

EDMONTON — The recently woebegone Vancouver Canucks are retooled and ready to make some noise in the NHL's return to play tournament, but first must avoid being smothered by the Minnesota Wild.

EDMONTON — The recently woebegone Vancouver Canucks are retooled and ready to make some noise in the NHL's return to play tournament, but first must avoid being smothered by the Minnesota Wild.

The Canucks, out of the playoffs since 2015, have assembled one of the best group of top-6 forwards in the NHL, with four 20-plus goal scorers: J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat.

But if the regular season is any indication, the Canucks will only go as far as goalie Jacob Markstrom can take them.

Markstrom, the 30-year-old Swede, carried Vancouver through the regular season, looking brilliant at times while facing a shooting gallery on a squad that averaged about 33 shots on goal against per game (28th in the NHL). When Markstrom went down with a knee injury in late February, the Canucks swooned too, going 6-9-2 before the spread of COVID-19 forced the league to suspend play on March 12.

His record was 23-16-4 and he had a .918 save percentage.

Markstrom is back and looked OK in the 4-1 exhibition loss Wednesday to the Winnipeg Jets. He said he went the distance to work on some technique and will be ready when the Canucks host the Wild on Sunday in the first game of their best-of-five elimination round series at Rogers Place.

"I thought it went better the longer it went. It was nice to be out there ... It's been a long time," Markstrom said.

The defence is headlined by rookie offensive whiz Quinn Hughes. Hughes has racked up eight goals and 53 points, leading all rookies.

The Wild, meanwhile, were on the decline before Dean Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau as head coach in mid-February and turned things around.

The Wild went 8-4 under Evason, with young winger Kevin Fiala setting the pace. Fiala had 14 goals and 26 points in the 18 games prior to the shutdown and will be counted on against the Canucks.

"I think they're really playing for each other. That's one of the biggest things we talked about before the pause," Evason said.

Minnesota's attack lacks the star power of Vancouver but has depth, balance, and veteran experience. Five players, along with Fiala, had 14 or more goals: Zach Parise (25 markers to lead the team), Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Luke Kunin and Ryan Donato.

On defence, Ryan Suter (team leader with 40 assists) is expected to log big minutes along with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin.

The Wild have goalie questions of their own. Starter Devan Dubnyk's game fell apart this season (12-15-2, .890 save percentage) and he eventually lost his job to Alex Stalock (20-11-4, .910 save percentage).

The two goalies split duties in the lone exhibition game Wednesday, a 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.

"I honestly don't know who's picking who. We're just worried about what we're going to do and how we're going to play against Vancouver," Evason said.

KEY MATCHUP — Joel Eriksson Ek, a pesky 23-year-old centre, will anchor the line expected to shut down Vancouver's top trio of Pettersson, Miller and Toffoli. Success here could tip the balance of the series.

THE BIG QUESTION — Will Minnesota be able to stay out of the penalty box and, if not, contain Vancouver's power play? The Canucks were fourth in the league with the man advantage, scoring 24.2 per cent of the time, while the Wild's penalty kill was 25th at 77.2 per cent.

PLAYOFF HISTORY — The Wild missed the playoffs last year, preceded by three consecutive years of first-round exits. Vancouver was last in the post season in 2015, losing in the first round to the Calgary Flames. The two teams have met before in the playoffs: Minnesota defeated Vancouver in 2003 to advance to the final four.

COACHES' PLAYOFF HISTORY — Vancouver's Travis Green is in his third season and has yet to coach in an NHL playoff game. Same for Minnesota's Evason.

REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS — Minnesota was 35-27-7, good for 21st overall and the 10th seed in the Western Conference. Vancouver was 36-27-6 (15th, seventh seed).

SEASON SERIES — Minnesota won two games (one by shootout) and lost one to Vancouver. Vancouver won 4-1 on Jan. 12, lost 4-2 on Feb. 6, and lost in a shootout 4-3 on Feb. 19.

This report by the Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press