Game #54 Preview – They Don’t Play These Games on Paper

A lovely scene from the Canucks last win at Xcel, almost a year ago.
Mikael Samuelsson scored and the Canucks had 14 total shots.
(Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Image)

Game Day Recon: Game #54 – Canucks @ Wild

As the saying goes, they don’t play these games on paper. If they did, this game would be an absolute blowout for the Vancouver Canucks. They lead, if not dominate, in every relevant statistical category over the Minnesota Wild, and their underlying numbers are far superior as well…

Sadly, they DON’T play these games on paper. And that’s a good thing for the Wild, because they are beating the odds and have actually won enough hockey games to remains in the top-8 in the West. For now.

Broadcast Info

Game Time: 5:00 PM PT

TV: RSN-PAC Radio: Team1040

The Setup

The "fancy stats" hockey bloggers of the world are rejoicing. The Minnesota Wild have crashed back down to Earth, and are still falling. They built up such a cushion over the first three months of the season that they have been able to maintain their tenuous hold on a playoff position, despite overwhelming odds. If you don’t believe me, and you like numbers and stats and charts, here are two charts (courtesy that clearly show the Wild’s long walk off a short pier over the last 2 months:

Yeah, They’re trending in the wrong direction. They were first in the conference just two months ago, and now find themselves hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West by the slimmest of margins. A regulation loss tonight knocks them down to 9th, out of the playoff picture.

The only reason the Wild are even competitive in most games is their goaltending. Ranked 8th in GA/gm, the Wild goaltending tandem of Backstrom, Hackett and Harding has been great this season, and Backstrom in particular has been super-human. The Finnish goaltender is tied for 6th in Sv%, right behind the Canucks Cory Schneider. Steady goaltending and decent team defence is the only thing keeping the Wild in most games. When they win, they win close games. And it’s the goaltending that is keeping those games close, because they are consistently outshot (-5.3 shot differential per game, worst in the NHL).

The Canucks, for their part, are beating the odds, thanks largely to luck recently. In fact their last 12 games bears an eerie resemblance to Wild’s November/December hot-streak. Vancouver’s team has been outplayed and outchanced consistently over the past six weeks. Yet, they kept winning and picking up points.

There was finally a breakthrough earlier this week. In their game against Nashville, it was the first time in several weeks where the Canucks dominated large portions of the game (mostly the third period), and they ended up outchancing the Predators at even strength. They can and should expect that again tonight, given the numbers posted below. Tonight represents a clear opportunity for the Canucks to get back to dominating possession and scoring chances against a weak team.

They may have to do it without captain Henrik, who could be out tonight with a right ankle injury. The Canucks Iron Man took a hard shot off the ankle on Tuesday, but managed to return and score two assists, including one to Byron Bitz. Sedin indicated today that his ankle is not broken (at least the CT scan didn’t show any fractures), so he may play today and keep that iron man streak alive. Whether it’s cracked or not, Henrik should just sit out for a week or so and let it heal. For a team that is a legit contender for the Stanley Cup again this year, it is FAR more important that Henrik is healthy than that they win a mid-February game against the Wild.

Numbers Game

This table includes what we believe to be the best "predictive" team metrics in hockey. Beyond the self-explanatory stats like record, powerplay percentage and goal differential, this table includes: 5-on-5 Goals For and Against Rate, which measures a team’s even-strength goal differential on a per game basis. Shot% and Fenwick% are indicators of possession and show us which team is better at controlling play. Shot% and Fenwick% in a tied game state have been proven to be the gold standard for measuring "real" team quality. We’ll also include PDO to qualify a team’s record – and try to isolate whether or not a particular opponent (or the Canucks) are actually as good as their record indicates, or whether or not they’ve just been lucky (or unlucky).

  Wild Canucks
Record 25-20-8 33-15-5
Venue Record (Home/Away) 13-7-3 18-9-1
Last 10 3-5-2 7-1-2
PP% 14.4% 22.7%
PK% 82.8% 85.9%
Goal Differential -14 +38
5-on-5 Goals F/A 0.94 1.16
Shots % 45.5% 50%
Fenwick % 45% 51.4%
Shots Tied % 44.6% 47.9%
Fenwick Tied % 45.1% 50%
PDO 100.5 101.5

Game Notes

Henrik Sedin and Dale Weise were both injured during the Canucks on Tuesday night in Nashville. With Henrik sporting a walking boot yesterday, it seemed unlikely that he would play tonight but, having taken the morning-skate today, the gamblers are listing him as "probable". While there hasn’t been any specific update on Weise, he skated this morning as well and will probalby get into the line-up. Everyone’s favourite hockey playing vampire, Mike Duco, has been recalled by the Vancouver Canucks and will make the relatively short trip from Chicago to the Twin Cities. He’ll be in the line-up if either Henrik or Weise can’t go tonight. Cory Schneider gets the start for the Canucks in net.

For the Minnesota Wild, Mikko Koivu is expected to return to the lineup, giving the Wild a HUGE boost as their captain and Canuck Killer provides them some much needed offense. Even with Koivu returning, the lineup of wounded is still pretty long in Minnesota, with PM Bouchard, Guilliaume Latendresse, Clayton Stoner and Jarrod Palmer still out of the roster.

The Three Keys

Here are the three keys for the Vancouver Canucks tonight:

  1. Play Koivu HARD. Ok, before all the Blackhawks fans get their arms up again, or before the Wild fans think that I am advocating violence, let me clear this up now – Hit the guy. Within the rules. But hit him HARD and OFTEN. Koivu is the heart AND soul of the Wild, and they have struggled mightily without him, (they’re 3-9 this season without Mikko). If the Canucks can keep him from being a force in this game by constantly banging and crashing into him, it will create a huge advantage for them. There, ya bleeding hearts. Is that better?
  2. Don’t get comfortable. The Canucks will very likely take the lead tonight, because the Wild don’t score (ranked 29th in GF). But the Wild are 10-10-0 when trailing after the first period. So they know how to play when down on the scoresheet. The Canucks cannot assume that a predictable lead at the first intermission is safe. In fact, when trailing first, the Wild are 15-14-4. That ranks them first in Wins and Win%. So the Canucks cannot lay low with a lead. That said, they would do themselves a big favour if they…
  3. Build up a healthy first period lead. I know, I know. "Outscore the other team and you’ll win!" Terribly stupid advice. But hear me out. The Canucks lead the league in goals scored in the first period, but it tends to be the Wild’s best period defensively. If the Canucks can build up a 2- or even 3-goal lead in the first period (and yes, they are capable of doing that), that would help to buffer any expected pushback from the Wild in the 2nd period (the Canucks weakest). The longer this game stays close, the more it favours the Wild. (They’re 15-5-8 in 1-goal games) and the lower the score stays, the more it favours the Wild. It needs to be a full-on offensive assault on the Wild net in the game’s first 20 minutes.

The Links

Here are your top 5 links for today’s game:

  1. Tale of the Tape (Vancouver Canucks)
  2. Canucks vs.Wild gameday (The Province)
  3. Canucks’ Henrik Sedin in walking boot, putting NHL games streak at risk (Vancouver Sun) 
  4. Canucks/Wild Preview (CBC Sports)