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Photo Credit: © Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Preparing for the Wild: What the last Canucks game tells us about Elias Pettersson’s potential playoff deployment

As we await more news, it’s looking more and more likely that the NHL will proceed with their return-to-play plan that would see the Vancouver Canucks face off against the Minnesota Wild in the “play-in round” to determine who goes onto round one. In this series, I will take a look at different matchups between the two teams and analyze what the Canucks will need to do in order to get past the Wild.

The first thing I want to analyze is how the Canucks will plan to match up against the Wild up front. Head coach Travis Green loves his matchups, and he relies heavily on his two shutdown lines to face the other team’s best players. Typically, these have been the lines centred by Bo Horvat and Jay Beagle.

Horvat’s line obviously is more capable in the offensive end than Beagle’s, but the two lines are typically relied on heavily to eat big minutes and help the Canucks close out games.

But we saw something different the last time the Canucks played — Elias Pettersson in a matchup role, and this wasn’t the first time Green tried it, either. The reason I point to this game as an example is that not only was it the last game the team played, it also came in a 5-4 shootout victory over the New York Islanders.

The Islanders are a team whose forward group is similar to Minnesota in the sense that they don’t really have an overpowered, star-studded line to constantly worry about shutting down. When the Canucks play a team with one of these lines, such as the Edmonton Oilers, Green always seems to do a good job in ensuring he’s got the right personnel out on the ice to shut down the team’s biggest threat, Connor McDavid.

In the case of teams like the Wild and the Islanders, who pretty steadily run all four lines, Green tends to send out his best offensive line to go up against the other team’s best line.

In the win over the Islanders, Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and Tyler Toffoli led all Canuck forwards in ice time, with Horvat and his linemates coming in shortly behind them.

Brett Lee did an outstanding two-part series where he analyzed game footage to answer the golden question: “Is Elias Pettersson ready to match up against top lines?” Among other things, he outlined how Pettersson is almost always the first forward back and is in good defensive position to break up the potential for dangerous scoring chances to even develop.

That night against the Islanders, Pettersson played almost every shift against the top line of Mat Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle. Compare that top line to the Wild’s first line of Eric Staal, Kevin Fiala, and Jordan Greenway — and it becomes more clear that Green doesn’t really have to plan around how he’s going to “shut down” that line.

Instead, the plan will likely be similar to the one he utilized in New York, not to simply stop the other team’s top line from scoring, but to give his top line the opportunity to outmatch their opponent. It’s a challenge Pettersson embraces, and one he’s continued to make good on.

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Thomas Drance of The Athletic asked coach Green about that game against New York, and if what we saw with Pettersson’s deployment was a sign of what’s to come down the road:

“Ultimately, the best teams in the league, that’s what they do: their best players play against the other team’s best players, and they win. Petey and I have had those conversations. I want there to be a time where I’m not protecting him, where I’m putting him in those spots. I have another guy in Bo Horvat and he’s good at it too.

I envision there being a time where I’m using both of those guys in different situations to also use it to your advantage as well. I just felt like that particular night, it was a good night to do that with the type of player Barzal is. I felt that was a night where we could do it and I felt it was a bit of a first step in that for us.

I’ve done it a couple of other times, conceded matchups on the road where you don’t have a say in it anyway and they are trying to hard match and you don’t want to take your player out of rhythm.  But also Petey needs those challenges once in a while. Every good player wants it, and when you do it, you show them the faith in the player, which is important as well.

There have been times where he’s looked at me with Connor McDavid on the ice, and I think he’s played well against Connor when he has.

He’s going to be that guy, and he wants that. It goes back to being an elite player, they all want that. I know Petey is wired that way, he wants that.”

It’s no secret that Green trusts Pettersson. Given the fact that Green referred to that night as a “first step”, it’s obvious that this is something he wants to eventually do more often. If and when the Canucks match up against the Minnesota Wild in the playoffs this summer, I think it’s safe to say that Pettersson will at least be given an opportunity to outplay the best players the Wild have to offer.

Both Miller and Pettersson have earned this opportunity, and it’s one that both of them will absolutely run with. No one ever questions the hustle and determination these two show each and every night, and one can only assume that in the playoffs, they’ll find a way to kick it up a notch.

Stay tuned for the next parts of this series, where I look at how the Canucks’ forward lines as a whole compare to the Wild’s. Spoiler alert, the Canucks’ top six is one of the best in the league.