Hockey is trending to look like the Vancouver Canucks, with smaller players and more skill, speed and offense.
That didn’t stop the big, heavy St. Louis Blues from bruising their way to the Stanley Cup last season and to the top of the Western Conference when the NHL season halted in March.
When Vancouver and defending champion St. Louis meet in the first round, it will be a matchup of opposites. The winner of the series will be the team that can better dictate its preferred method of play, and the Blues have the experience in setting that tone. Game 1 is Wednesday.
”We have to establish our physicality right away,” reigning playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly said. ”We’ve got to show them that this is going to be a hard series and they’re going to have to earn everything.”
The Canucks earned their spot in the round of 16 by beating the Minnesota Wild in the best-of-five qualifying round. Now the fifth seed in the deep, unpredictable Western Conference, they can use the experience gleaned from a rough and tumble Minnesota series to measure themselves against the Blues.
”The previous series was a good warmup for us, for sure,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. ”Minnesota defends very well, they’ve got a deep set of forwards, and the hockey at this time of the year was very intense. Your body had to get used to it, and I think it was a good test for our group and this will be another one. There’s no bigger test than playing the team that had just won the Stanley Cup.”
St. Louis has virtually the same team back from the first title in franchise history. But this group lost all three of its round-robin games to fall to the fourth seed in the West.
Coach Craig Berube wasn’t happy with much of what his team did in those tuneup games but noticed a different level of focus now that elimination is possible.
”They know now: You’ll go home if you don’t play well,” Berube said. ”I think that obviously makes you dialed in a little bit more.”
Vancouver isn’t a natural rival, and there haven’t been many chances to build up some postseason hatred. The Canucks will be playing in their first best-of-seven playoff series since 2015. Despite that lack of experience, the Canucks are talented enough to put a scare into the Blues if they don’t take them seriously.
”We definitely don’t want to underestimate them,” St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn said. ”They have great goaltending, too, so from top to bottom they’re lethal defensively and offensively. At any point in time, we can’t take our foot off the gas.”
PETTERSSON VS. O’REILLY
Dynamic Canucks forward Elias Pettersson could see a lot of O’Reilly, one of the best defensive stoppers in the game. Pettersson is excited for the challenge.
”He’s an elite player, elite scorer,” O’Reilly said. ”You can see the way he reads the game and the positions he puts himself in, he’s always a threat. Playing against that, you’ve always got to be aware of him and tight to him, make sure, any chance you can, step in his way and just making it difficult on him. ”
PETTERSSON VS. BINNINGTON
Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington said he thought he should have won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season. Pettersson won it and is now trying to downplay any perceived contention with the Cup-winning netminder.
”Both of us are trying to play our best every game,” Pettersson said. ”It’s not up to us who wins the Calder.”
Binnington didn’t get his NHL chance until age 25, and that came midway through the 2018-19 season. Not being called up until January last season likely cost him the award.
”I think he doesn’t take that personally. I think that just motivates him more,” Dunn said. ”He hasn’t had the easiest path to get where he is right now, so I think that just helps him motivate himself to want to push himself to be even better this year.”
D FOR DISCIPLINE
Vancouver took a play-in-round-high 28 penalties, an average of seven a game, and St. Louis committed 15 in its three games. Related: the Blues ranked third on the power play and the Canucks fourth during the regular season.
The lesson? Stay out of the box or pay the price.
”We haven’t been disciplined yet and going forward here starting in the first game against Vancouver, we need to be a disciplined hockey team,” Berube said. ”We can accept taking away a scoring chance or things like that or physicality at times, getting calls for that, but this hooking and tripping and holding and stuff like that, we’ve got to get rid of those.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno.
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