Photo credit: National Post
There are a few hockey adages that nearly always ring true. Adages like “throw it on net, and good things happen”, or one of a similar vein, “go to the net and good things happen”, litter not just hockey but all sports. There is no sport where being flashy and being pretty wins games. More often than not, it’s the hard-earned garbage goals that are more effective or have a larger impact than the fancy toe-drag dangle after a coast-to-coast rush.
This year’s Canucks team is loaded with depth, talent and a will to win but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect in every area. While the gears are turning and lines are transitioning from hot to cold amidst return from injury and re-injury the Canucks are in most cases primed for the postseason. After all, a playoff spot is all but locked up, the powerplay and penalty-kill units are still top-tier, and a few players are vying for end of season hardware.
That said, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this turns into a different game when game number eighty-three begins.
One thing the Canucks have seen time and again has been the other team’s persistence in the crease. Their persistence to get garbage goals, their persistence to crash the net, and their persistence to get to the Canucks’ netminder. The Canucks have fallen victim to it two years in a row as the Blackhawks riding Dustin Byfuglien have sent the Canucks home empty-pocketed save perhaps Patrick Kane’s $0.20. Crashing the net though isn’t just a strategy successful against the Canucks, it’s successful against most goalies. It’s part of a winning strategy yet the Canucks have yet to employ it consistently.
The Canucks have shown glimpses of net presence this season. Their powerplay has evolved to feature Ryan Kesler as your new breed of power forward. Gone are the days when Todd Bertuzzi would park himself in front of the net and have pucks bounce off him. Instead, Kesler brings to the Canucks offense a net presence which has proven effective all season and which is one of the main reasons the powerplay sits first in the league. (For what it’s worth, those Blackhawks sit in second.) It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out the effect of a body in front of the net and the effect of the screen, and if there’s one criticism of the team this season, it’s that they don’t employ this strategy nearly as often in their even-strength game.
The good thing is, the Canucks seem to be getting the message in preparation for the playoffs. We already know that Kesler scores many of his goals from the dirty areas. Of late, Manny Malhotra’s and Jannik Hansen’s success have also come from going to the net. But also, Alex Burrows has notched his points from in close. If the Canucks want to go deep this year, it’s going to need to be a more regular part of their game plan, and with four great forechecking lines and big centers, they certainly have the personnel to implement big-bodied offense in the net area.
Looking at the close playoff race in the Western Conference, it’s conceivable the Canucks could face any of the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes. The Kings boast big boy and deadline pickup Dustin Penner, the Flames have Tim Jackman and Olli Jokinen, the Stars have havoc-maker Ben Eager, and the Coyotes have Marty Hanzal to terrorize Luongo’s crease. Looking further ahead, the Canucks could also face a physical Philadelphia Flyers team with Scott Hartnell and others who have no issue with taking liberties in front of the net. Game momentum is going to be dictated by crease crashers in the postseason as it is every year and the Canucks need to get with it.
Good regular season stats mean nothing when the postseason starts. It’s a fresh slate for every team and while external regular season factors may impact the playoffs to a degree, the postseason is an entirely different game. Players elevate their game, it’s more physical, and every single goal counts. There’s no such thing as a good loss in the playoffs. The Canucks have the players to go to the net, they have to start using them. Perimeter play may work for the Sedins, but Malhotra, Kesler and who ever fits the revolving role of fourth line center need to impact the scoreboard, starting in the crease.
They say the best defense is a good offense. Well in the words of the Hunter Hearst Helmsley, it’s time to play the game.