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Canucks face off against Nashville in first playoff series since 2020

Expectations have grown immensely for Vancouver over the past 12 months
Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, left, and Nashville Predators’ Gustav Nyquist watch the puck during NHL action in Vancouver, on Tuesday, October 31, 2023. On Sunday, the Canucks will host their first home playoff game since 2015 when they kick off a first-round matchup against the Predators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Expectations for the Vancouver Canucks were not high heading into the season.

Asked in September if he expected the team to make the playoffs, president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford hedged.

“To be very to the point, the changes that we made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right,” he said.

Things did go right.

On Sunday, the Canucks will host their first home playoff game since 2015 when they kick off a first-round matchup against the Nashville Predators.

Vancouver has been one of the big surprises of the NHL season. The team went 23-9-3 ahead of the Christmas break and consistently hovered near the top of the league standings before capturing the Pacific Division title with a 50-23-9 record.

“I think if someone told us where we would be this time (of the) year in the summer, obviously we’d take it,” said captain Quinn Hughes. “It’s different when you’re building something every day and you’re living it. But we knew we had some good pieces in here and we’ve got a great staff, and management did a really good job with putting pieces together.

“And it hasn’t been easy, but we did everything we were supposed to do.”

Players arrived in Vancouver well ahead of training camp last fall, trading their late-summer plans for group skates.

Brock Boeser, the team’s longest-tenured player, says it feels “amazing” to see the hard work result in a playoff spot and division title.

“Obviously, we were sick and tired of losing,” he said. “And that’s why we came here early to try and set that standard, set those expectations. I think we had that great start to the year and just built off it. We’ve had our ups and downs, but I think we’ve learned a lot.”

Several of the Canucks’ top players shone throughout the season, putting up career-high numbers.

Hughes led all NHL defenceman with 92 points. Boeser hit the 40-goal mark. Three Vancouver players were among the league’s top-20 scorers, including forward J.T. Miller with a team-high 103 points. Even after missing a month with a knee injury, goalie Thatcher Demko finished with a 35-14-2 record, a .918 save percentage and five shutouts.

Point totals and division titles don’t count in the post-season, noted winger Conor Garland.

“It’s nice, but once Game 1 comes around, it’ll all be meaningless,” he said. “We give ourselves a chance getting into the playoffs. It really doesn’t matter if you’re the eighth seed or the No. 1 seed, everybody has a chance. And that’s what everybody fights for all year.”

Head coach Rick Tocchet preached the importance of having a “day-to-day mindset” throughout the season. That won’t change come playoffs, he said.

“I think for our group, we just have to worry about Game 1,” he said. “You can’t look at the big thing, ‘What if?’ or ‘You’ve got to win a series,’ all that stuff. I think it’s dangerous when you think that way.

“I think, honestly, we’ve got to prepare for that first period against Nashville and be ready to play from that first shift. … I think when you think big picture, that’s when you get nervous.”

NHL playoff experience is one thing many of Vancouver’s stars lack. The Canucks’ last playoff run came in the Edmonton bubble during the COVID-abbreviated 20219-20 season.

“That was different. That was tough,” said Garland, who played for the Arizona Coyotes at the time. “Our games were at like, 10 in the morning. So I was eating pasta at 8 a.m. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had in my life.

“This year is different. I’ll find out.”

Six current Canucks played for Vancouver in the bubble, including Boeser. Playoffs this year will be completely different, he said.

“I think we’ve just got to look at it as our first time,” Boeser said. “Just with the fans and the momentum shift and all that, it’s something new to us and something I think we’re going to have to embrace.”

The Canucks swept their season series against Nashville, but all three games took place before Christmas and the Predators were one of the NHL’s hottest teams coming out of the all-star break. Nashville took points from 18 straight games across February and March, and finished the regular season fourth in a ultra-competitive Central Division.

The late-season push doesn’t scare Canucks winger Dakota Joshua.

“I feel good about facing anybody,” he said. “I think this group is a confident one.”

The results of the Vancouver-Nashville season series will help going into the playoffs, Joshua added.

“You know you can beat them,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you start off 0-0. They were a pretty hot team here down the stretch, so they’re feeling probably a lot better than the times we played them during the season. And it should be a great series.”


Regular-season series: Vancouver 3-0

Goals per game: Vancouver — 3.40 (6th); Nashville — 3.24 (10th).

Top scorers: Vancouver — J.T. Miller, 103 points; Nashville — Filip Forsberg, 94

Starting goaltender: Vancouver — Thatcher Demko, 35-14-2, 2.45 GAA, .918 save percentage; Nashville — Juuse Saros, 35-24-5, 2.86 GAA, .906 save percentage

Power play percentage: Vancouver — 22.7 (11th); Nashville — 21.6 (16th)

Penalty kill percentage: Vancouver — 79.1 (17th); Nashville — 76.9 (22nd)

The Big Stat: Vancouver went 17-12-4 after the all-star break while Nashville was 21-7-3.

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