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Canucks may be catching the wrong team at the wrong time


Last October, I again forecasted a Vancouver Canucks playoff berth — something I had done in the prior two seasons, getting unceremoniously burned in the process. And while I believed in the roster building ongoing in Vancouver, my confidence was eroding. 

Thankfully, Vancouver’s recipe of premium talent at the top end of the lineup and reliable goaltending behind it broke through in a big way this season. At no point did they look like a pretender, and for most of the season were a genuine Presidents’ Trophy contender.

Confidence fully restored!

But the gift and the curse of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that matchups matter, and with respect to a date with the Nashville Predators, I was genuinely concerned about first-round upset potential – this before the injury to Thatcher Demko after Game 1. I think Vancouver would have much preferred to play Los Angeles versus either of the wild-card teams for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The irony about the Predators is they are much like the other Western Conference wild-card team, the Vegas Golden Knights, in one respect: it’s difficult to judge them over the full season.

In Nashville’s case, the first half of their regular season was shockingly disappointing. But since the trade deadline, we are talking about one of the league’s most dominant teams, period.

Playing at a 119-point pace with expected goals and real goals (all situations) exceeding 53 per cent are usually the hallmark indicators of a Stanley Cup contender, forget a wild-card team. And while this sample of data could overstate just how talented this Nashville team is, we also know to overweight recent performance, which is predictive of how teams perform in the postseason.

The daylight between these two teams is thin – the top of the Vancouver lineup still looks the more impressive group, but that may be where their small edge starts and ends. Otherwise, these two teams increasingly appear indiscernible from one another – and a lot of it has to do with the improvement of the Predators over the course of the season:

There are many reasons why recent performance matters (player health, roster decisions leading into the trade deadline, et al.), but the reality is Nashville grades quite a bit better than your typical wild-card team, like one that finished with a -37 goal differential.

Having split the first two games in Vancouver, home ice has now flipped to Nashville. The glass-half-full assessment of where things are at for the Canucks is simple – they have dominated control of the puck over the first two games of the series (though score effects likely contributed to that to some degree in Game 2), and this team has routinely shown their top-end talent can produce, even against quality defences. Win one game in Nashville, and home-ice advantage returns.

There is just one more problem. I mentioned the Demko injury earlier, and there are whispers this is the type of injury that could see him miss an extended amount of time. On paper, Vancouver is one of the few teams that has the premium goaltending to matchup favourably against Juuse Saros and Nashville. But with Casey DeSmith in net, the math changes – consider just how well all three played over the course of the regular season in relation to one another.

DeSmith had an okay year in a backup role with the Canucks, and anyone sans Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck is not going to compare favourably to Demko, one of the best puck-stoppers in the world. And to that end, the drop-off from Demko to DeSmith is meaningful. That’s a problem when you are also facing a team like Nashville, who now hold the goaltending advantage in the series.

Vancouver is a great team, but you have to get a little bit lucky to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The combination of drawing a very game Nashville team and immediately incurring a major loss at the goaltending position is anything but.

A critical Game 3 lies ahead.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference