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Canucks vs Predators: Onus in game one is on winning pivotal matchups


The Canucks are hosting their first playoff home game since April 15, 2015. They claimed their first Pacific Division title in 11 years with 50 wins and 109 points.

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Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

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Round 1, Game 1 of NHL playoffs
When/where: Sunday, 7 p.m., Rogers Arena
TV: SN Pacific. Radio: Sportsnet 650

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The buzz: You can see it, feel it and hear it.

On city streets, in boisterous bars, the locker room and a raucous Rogers Arena, the anticipation is amped up because the long and agonizing wait is finally over.

The Canucks are hosting their first playoff home game since April 15, 2015. They beat the odds and carved out a path of consistency and resiliency to claim their first Pacific Division title in 11 years with 50 wins and 109 points.

“I’m really happy for the guys,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. “They did a hell of a job all year and it (division title) is a big honour. They should enjoy it.

“Let’s face it. Nobody really picked us to win the division and you have to give the players a lot of credit.”

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The road to redemption was paved by Thatcher Demko, who’s worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration, record-setting Quinn Hughes, who’s the Norris Trophy favourite and J.T. Miller, who piled up 103 points.

Now it gets harder.

The Predators’ playoff push came after a defining loss. On Feb. 15, they were embarrassed in a 9-2 drubbing by the Dallas Stars on home ice. A team trip to see U2 in Las Vegas was cancelled.

The Predators responded by winning eight straight, and a 14-0-2 run was the catalyst to claim the top Western Conference wild-card position at 47-30-5. It gives the Canucks something to think about.

Former Predators coach Barry Trotz became an aggressive general manager. He changed the head coach, jettisoned six notable players, and added wily veterans for more drive and collective heart. It worked. And what awaits for the Canucks is obvious when it gets physical.

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“You’ve got to embrace the pain. There’s going to be pain and you’ve got to love it,” Tocchet said Saturday. “You’ve got to play uncomfortable.”

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Centre J.T. Miller and defenceman Quinn Hughes are key playoff cogs for the Canucks. Photo by Frank Franklin II /AP

The matchups: You’ve got to win the big battles to win any series. Here’s what to watch:

1. Thatcher Demko vs. Juuse Saros: The Canucks starter was sidelined by a knee injury March 9 and missed 14 games. In goalies with 50 starts, he was second in shutouts (5) and saves percentage (.918), third in goals-against average (2.45) and wins (35). Saros started slow but the former Vezina finalist won 15 of his final 20 games with a .916 saves percentage.

2. J.T. Miller/Elias Lindholm vs. Ryan O’Reilly: The Predators acquired first-line centre O’Reilly for his pedigree. Won 53.9 per cent of his draws this season and was fifth in total wins. Miller finished at 56.3 and was seventh in total wins. Lindholm was 56.4 per cent, and in 10th short-handed draws.

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3. Quinn Hughes vs. Roman Josi: Hughes re-set his franchise records and led all blueliners with 92 points (17-75) and an eye-popping plus-38 ranking. The speedy, slick puck magician will match wits against Josi, an expected Norris finalist. He was a top-producing blueliner in 2024 with 56 points in 45 games, led all defenders in goals (23) and shots (268).

4. Special teams: The Canucks’ power play often looks for pretty goals instead of grinding them out down low. Finished 11th (22.7 per cent), while the Predators were 16th (21.6). The big story here is improved penalty kill. New faces, new commitment led to 17th ranking (79.1). The Predators were 22nd (76.9).

The history: The Canucks won all three season meetings and outscored the Predators 13-6. The last meeting was 5-2 road win on Dec. 19 in which Saros allowed five goals on 24 shots and was yanked in the third period.

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The hope: Elias Pettersson finds the pace, playmaking and production to be a post-season force. Has just one goal in his last 13 games and seven points. Might be playing through something.

The fear: Opening-night jitters. Expectations are enormous. In 2015, the Canucks lost the series opener to Calgary 2-1 on home ice as the Flames rallied to score the winner with 29.6 seconds remaining. They won the series in six games.

The net result: The Canucks have recalled Arturs Silovs from their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford under emergency conditions, which is allowed because the farm team is still active. With Abbotsford awaiting commencement of the Calder Cup playoffs later this week, the parent club called up Silovs. He’s 3-0-1 in the NHL this season with a 2.47 GAA and  .881 saves percentage. The move also allows Vancouver to retain its three playoff recalls.

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Silovs took part  in the optional game-day skate Sunday because Tocchet wants to limit the practice time of Demko to ensure the starter his rested and ready for the long series haul.

The top guns: Hughes is in more select company. In single-season scoring by defencemen since 1991-92, he ranks fifth with 92 points. The leaders are Brian Leetch (102), Erik Karlsson (101), Phil Housley (97) and Josi (96).

The wounded: Predators: Alexandre Carrier (undisclosed, day-to-day).

The quote: “It’s a hell of a feat going into training camp and working for this. It’s a resilient group. They bought in.” — Rick Tocchet.

The lineup: 

Hoglander-Pettersson-Lafferty

Suter-Miller-Boeser

Joshua-Lindholm-Garland

Di Giuseppe-Blueger-Mikheyev

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Hughes-Hronek

Soucy-Myers

Zadorov-Cole

Demko

The prediction: The Canucks continue their season-long dominance of the Predators. Empty-net goal seals it in 4-2 win.

(What’s your prediction?: Tell us in the comments below.)

bkuzma@postmedia.com

GET YOUR CANUCKS PLAYOFF POSTERS: We are proud to partner with the Vancouver Canucks to bring you this year’s edition of the long-time Province tradition, the Canucks Playoff Poster series. CLICK HERE to get a new player poster emailed to you every game day!


READ MORE CANUCKS PLAYOFF COVERAGE:

• How hard lessons have J.T. Miller primed for playoff success
• Predators can lean on familiar faces Luke Schenn, Anthony Beauvillier for Canucks playoff prep
• Canucks: How loyalist ‘Larscheiders’ became amped up to ramp up arena experience
• Canucks: Playoff time needs to be now time for Elias Pettersson
• Canucks playoff run is like having ‘Super Bowl every other night,’ says pub owner
• Want to sound smart at a Canucks playoff party? Know hockey’s most underrated skills

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