May 022013
 

Photo credit: Jeff Vinnick via NHL.com

After an abbreviated season, the Vancouver Canucks opened up the postseason with a 3-1 loss to the visiting San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night. Looking back at the game and looking ahead to the next one, there are a few Things That Make Me Go Hmmm:

Searching for the Right Line Combinations

The Canucks forwards simply did not create enough shots or scoring opportunities. This continues a trend of low-scoring games as the Canucks have not scored more than 3 goals in a game since their 4-2 win over Nashville on April 15. I must admit that I was a tad befuddled when I learned the line combinations on Monday for last night’s game.

We know that Burrows with the Sedins is pretty much a given (for now) and that the fourth line will consist of any combo of Ebbett, Weise, Sestito, Pinizzotto, and sometimes Lapierre. The Canucks started game one with a second line of Kesler between Higgins and Kassian, and a third line of Roy between Raymond and Hansen. While Roy and Kesler were likely separated to spread the Canucks’ centres over three lines to counter Thornton, Couture, and Pavelski, I was surprised that Higgins was placed on Kesler’s wing and not Roy’s. In the few games that they played together, Higgins and Roy looked like a dangerous combo. Instead, they found themselves on different lines to start the series.

We all know that coach Alain Vigneault has no problem with juggling his lines. I’d like to see Roy between Hansen and Higgins leaving Kesler to centre Raymond and Kassian. Who knows – if AV is confident in Lapierre, we might see Kesler and Roy reunited on a second line to give the Canucks more scoring potential. Moving Lapierre up would likely mean Kassian moving down to the fourth line… a position he found himself in by the end of game one.

Home Ice Disadvantage

With the Canucks loss, they have now lost 5 straight playoff games at home – a stretch dating back to game 7 on June 15, 2011 against the Boston Bruins. Obviously, a lot has to do with the quality of opposition, but for whatever reason Rogers Arena is not a difficult place for opposing teams to win in during the playoffs.

The Canucks’ regular season home record was decent at 15-6-3 while San Jose’s road record was a pathetic 8-14-2. By contrast, San Jose’s regular season home record was a sparkling 17-2-5. Thus, you can see just how important it will be for the Canucks to triumph in game two and tie the series up. If they lose, they won’t be able to beat this strong San Jose team 4 times out of 5 (with 3 of the games in San Jose).

Canucks fans need to get a lot louder and a little more rowdy (much to the chagrin of Rogers Arena employees). After all, isn’t this what we live for?

Every Game is a Pivotal Game

Get ready to hear about how much game two is a “pivotal” game. Captain Obvious here would like to point out that going to San Jose tied one game apiece is a lot better than going in down two games.

Then, game three will become pivotal as it will either create an almost insurmountable deficit at 3 games to 0, or one team will at least take a stronghold in the series. Game one was intuitively pivotal as both teams wanted to get off to a good start.

The point being that every single game in the playoffs is a pivotal game. Now the Canucks need to start playing like it.

May 012013
 

On paper, the Vancouver Canucks probably couldn’t have drawn a better match-up in these first round of the NHL playoffs than the San Jose Sharks.

Or maybe put it another way, at least they don’t have to play a 7-game series against a bigger, more physical St. Louis Blues team.

The Canucks and the Sharks resemble each other in many ways. Both teams have veteran-laden rosters that have experienced a lot of regular season success. But also, save for an extended run or two, both teams have a history of crashing and burning in the postseason.

Since the 2004 lockout, the Canucks have put together 5-100 point seasons and have won 6 playoff rounds. Ditto the Sharks, but they won 1 more playoff round (7) than the Canucks. Of course, both teams met in the Western Conference Finals in 2011. And of course, following that, both teams also flamed out in the first round of the playoffs last year.

With an aging core, a lot of pundits predict that whichever team loses this series will be forced to undergo major changes in the offseason. But then again, with a decreasing salary cap, maybe both will be forced to make changes anyway.

Why the Canucks will win

Except for Chris Tanev, who is expected back sometime in the middle of this round, and David Booth, the Canucks are finally healthy, and what a healthy roster can do to improve how this team looks can’t be understated.

Now, coach Alain Vigneault can roll out 3 potentially potent scoring lines consisting of Sedin-Sedin-Burrows, Higgins-Kesler-Kassian, Raymond-Roy-Hansen. Or, if he wants to load up the top-6, he can roll out Sedin-Sedin-Burrows, Higgins-Roy-Kesler, and roll out a checking line of Raymond-Lapierre-Hansen. Either of these combinations match up well against the Sharks.

On defense, the group of Hamhuis, Garrison, Bieksa and Edler, is deeper than the group of Boyle, Vlasic, Stuart and Irwin.

We’ve seen what a healthy Canucks lineup can do, evidenced by a complete effort against the Chicago Blackhawks just last week. The only question is whether or not they will be motivated enough to do so for the next 2 months.

Why the Sharks will win

Antti Niemi may very well hold the key to a Sharks series victory. He’s been great this year, finishing the regular season with 2.16 GAA and a 0.924 save percentage. Particularly against the Canucks, he was lights out, stopping 82 of 87 shots (0.943 save percentage) in 3 San Jose wins; for those counting at home, that’s 5 goals allowed in 3 games.

Now, this is not an indictment on Cory Schneider because, statistically, Schneider was a shade better (2.11 GAA and a 0.927 save percentage). However, Niemi has much more playoff experience than Schneider does. Schneider has only appeared in 8 playoff games. The last team with a relatively inexperienced goaltender to win the Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010… with Niemi in net, who at the time had 42 NHL games under his belt and was appearing in the postseason for the first time.

If Niemi shuts the door on the Canucks’ 20th-ranked offense, the Canucks will have to rely on Schneider and hope he’s equally up to the task.

[Update]

Scratch that. It looks like Roberto Luongo is starting tonight.

Quickies

Apr 282013
 

The Canucks lost their regular season finale to the Edmonton Oilers by a 7-2 score. It’s disappointing when you think the score was tied at 2 in the third period. But maybe not so surprising when you realize the Canucks played without their whole top line and their 3 of their top-4 defensemen. Heck, Derek Joslin, Cam Barker and Frankie Corrado all played about 19-20 minutes each. Those stats alone probably say it all.

He probably should have.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Apr 192013
 

Against another potential playoff opponent, the Canucks collapsed once again last night. This time around, they allowed 4 goals in the third period and lost 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.

The forwards were bad, and the defense was especially bad.

Get well soon, Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev. We need you back.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Apr 182013
 

Photo by Jeff Vinnick

In an effort to create more offense (or in an effort to maintain his reputation as a chronic line juggler), Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault made news by putting Ryan Kesler on the wing alongside recently-acquired centreman Derek Roy in practice. While I was looking forward to seeing them play together, many Canucks fans were up in arms at the move, citing Kesler’s preference to play in the middle and the potential of unbalanced forward lines (from a scoring perspective).

By game time, all was right with the world as Kesler took his centre position back while Roy was the one shifting over to the wing.  Kesler supporters were happy and so was I – the two of them were still going to play together.

The result against Nashville was good: both Kesler and Roy had two points apiece in the Canucks 5-2 win.  The duo was tamed in the subsequent game – a 2-1 shootout loss to St. Louis.

So why is playing centre so much better?  Along with the help of some loyal CHB readers, I present to you The Top 10 Reasons Why Playing Centre is Better Than Playing on the Wing:

10.  One word: faceoffs.  Or is that two words: face offs?

9.  The centre is the one who makes the line what it is.  (Submitted by @RyanGuevs)

8.  Centre of attention makes sense.  Wing of attention doesn’t.

7.  Because he won the friggen Selke.  (Submitted by @BrowntoBure)

I think my Twitter-buddy Dave mistook the topic to be “Top 10 Reasons Why Kesler Should Stay at Centre” but I’ll accept it nonetheless.  Then, as a reply to my reply, Dave added:

I actually prefer wing…it’s less work.

6.  The wingman never gets the girl.  (Pat on Facebook)

I hope he’s not speaking from experience.

5.  Centres can be smooth like the centre of a Caramilk.  Wings can be good too…with hot sauce.  (Submitted by @Rozzy80)

I think my buddy Jay mistook the topic to be “Top 10 Ways to Relate This Hockey Blog to Food”.

4.  Who would you rather be?  Ricky Bobby or Cal Naughton Jr.? If you ain’t first, you’re last.  (Submitted by @lyteforce and @mattlee61)

Yes, it takes 2 CHB contributors to come up with one entry:  one of them to suggest it, the other to correct it.

3.  Playing centre, it doesn’t matter if you’re a right-handed shot on the right side, a right-handed shot on the left side, a left-handed shot on the left side, or a left-handed shot on the right side.  Either side will be your strong side because you’re in the middle of the ice.

2.  Both of these guys won the Art Ross.  But only one of them won the Hart.

Photo by Jeff Vinnick

1.  No guy dreams of becoming Goose. You dream of becoming Maverick.  (Submitted by Jason on Facebook)

 

No doubt this will make fellow CHBer @lyteforce proud.  Very proud.

Apr 092013
 

In my first Clay’s Canucks Commentary since my trip to Rome 3 weeks ago, I look at Vancouver’s 2-0 win over Phoenix at Rogers Arena and in particular the return of Ryan Kesler.

Kesler returned to the line-up after missing 19 games and he made an immediate impact by scoring the game-winning goal just 7 minutes in.

Kesler’s return, coupled with the acquisition of Derek Roy at the trade deadline, bolsters the Canucks down the middle and gives some much needed strength and firepower to the forward group overall.

 

 

Apr 052013
 

The Canucks really couldn’t start a game than they did against the Edmonton Oilers last Saturday. I mean, they gave up 3 goals on 3 shots in the first 3 minutes. Would love for that not to happen again.

It really was an entertaining game. A 4-0 win against a streaking divisional rival, some big plays, big goals… and a return visit by the most exciting player to ever put on a Canucks jersey, Pavel Bure.

Here’s the game in your tweets.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Apr 022013
 

Vancouver Canucks have acquired Derek Roy from the Dallas Stars.

Photo credit: Sportsnet

Not that GM Mike Gillis needed to be reminded of the Canucks’ lack of depth at center, but just to be sure, it was put in plain view in their 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks last night. Alain Vigneault tried Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins and his pack of gum at center. Even Henrik Sedin took some defensive zone faceoffs, which, if you’re aware of the team’s use of zone starts, flies in the face of their *ahem* process.

Gillis finally pulled the trigger on a trade this morning, acquiring Derek Roy from the Dallas Stars. In return, the Canucks sent prospect Kevin Connauton and a 2nd round draft pick to the Stars.

At 5’9″, Roy is a small center, but can provide offense for the offensively-starved Canucks. Despite his size, he’s averaged 0.77 points per game in the NHL, including a 4-season stretch with the Buffalo Sabres in which he recorded 20+ goals and 40+ assists in each one. This season, he has 18 assists and 22 points in 30 games with the Stars, including an active 4-game point streak in which he has 6 points (1G-5A). More importantly, it gives Vigneault additional options, especially with Ryan Kesler expected back in the next week.

The Canucks do give up a once-promising offensive prospect on defense in Connauton. But with the defense core of Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison and Alex Edler all signed long-term, Chris Tanev sure to re-signed to an extension this summer, and 2011 5th rounder Frankie Corrado progressing leaps and bounds this season, Connauton’s opportunity to move up to the big club was limited.

Roy is a rental player. His contract, which carries a $4 million cap hit, expires at the end of the season, and he’s expected to test the free agent market this summer. In the end, the Canucks gave up some future depth to hopefully fill a present need.

You be the judge: Was this a good trade?

Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

But Washington’s 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night was another of the growing number of nails being hammered into the coffin laying rest to the Washington Capitals – 2011-12 edition.

Make no mistake, this Washington team is taking after Monty Python’s dead parrot – it’s bereft of life, destined to rest in peace.

And to think just 24 months ago this was a team destined to transform and dominate the NHL landscape.

There are two reasons why the juggernaut Washington Capitals of 2009-10 have transformed into a Cinderella-sized pumpkin.  

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games in the 2009-10 season. In the two seasons since, Green has played just 61 regular season games total. He is the straw that stirs the Washington attack, and he’s been MIA for most of the last two seasons.

This year, the team’s number #1 centre – Nicklas Backstrom – has missed significant time due to a concussion. The drop-off in talent from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson is the equivalent of leaving Charlize Theron to date Mayim Bialik.

Other than Alex Ovechkin, these are the team’s two best, most dynamic players. Without them it’s a no brainer the Capitals have struggled more.

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

The 2009-10 Capitals were having fun tearing up the league on their way to a 121-point season. They were the “go-go” Capitals, featuring seven 20+ goal scorers.

Flash forward to today, and the Capitals will be lucky to have four 20-goal scorers.

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

Ovechkin 50
Semin 40
Backstrom 33
Knuble 29
Laich 25
Fleischmann 23
Fehr 21

2011-12 Capitals 20-goal scorers (on pace):

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

That seven game loss to the Canadiens was devastating to the Capitals front office, who expected nothing less than a championship run that year.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Capitals lost the series after being up three-games-to-one:

1) They were a young team (younger than the team that lost to Pittsburgh the year before). Inexperienced playoff teams are extremely suspect to the whims of momentum (both positive and negative).

2) Confidence is a major factor in the success of special teams, and the Capitals just didn’t have it in their powerplay (1-for-33 in the series). This meant the Habs could take penalties without punishment.

3) Montreal employed a passive trap when they had the lead, which confounded coach Bruce Boudreau.

4) Montreal paid extra-special attention to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom defensively, challenging the rest of the Capitals to create offense.

5) Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak put on the greatest playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy in 1992-93, if not longer.

Given the above, the steps that had to be taken to get the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final were clear:

1) Find some playoff experience to add to the dressing room.

2) Count on better luck (Halak-esque performances don’t happen every year).

3) Support coach Boudreau in figuring out how to beat the trap.

4) Find an impact second-line centre to take the pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Instead, General Manager George McPhee went in the opposite direction, abandoning the style of play he’d built the team on for one that put a priority on defensive accountability.  

It’s been downhill ever since.

The 2010-11 Capitals racked up 107 points but their goals per game rate fell more than a full goal (-1.09). A distance emerged between the team’s run-and-gun – and best – player (Ovechkin) and its coach. Talented Tomas Fleischmann was shipped out for the blueline carcass known as Scott Hannan.  

Come playoff time, Washington was swept by another trapping team, this time the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. But unlike during the Montreal series (where Washington generated scoring chances to no avail), the Capitals went meekly into the off-season, and with little offensive push back.

This past summer, GM George McPhee doubled-down on his defensive bet. He added Tomas Vokoun to play goal, and brought in Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik to bring size and grit to the team. 

What none of these players do is create offense on their own.

And, for the first part of the 2011-12 season, they couldn’t stop a puck either. Vokoun got off to a poor start, and despite his team out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

The hiring of Dale Hunter was the last bit of “defensive desperation” to come out of the Washington front office. As discussed last week, Hunter’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach has stifled what creativity has remained in the Capitals attack.

The transformation of this team from “go-go” to “no-go” is now complete.

Today the Washington Capitals are in a desperate fight for their playoff lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

If Capitals fans should blame anyone, it’s GM George McPhee.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • No big surprise – this interview suggests the man behind the Seattle arena bid could care less about the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it looks like the NHL would like to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to the bid that includes Jeremy Roenick.
  • Speaking of the Coyotes, it’s been quite the season for Radim Vrbata. He’s cracked 30 goals for the first time, and at least one person thinks he should be a Hart candidate.
  • Don’t look now but Tyler Myers has found his game in Buffalo. He’s got 2 goals, 7 points and is a +7 in his last 10 games.
  • Here’s a Detroit reaction to acquiring Kyle Quincey. Here’s more analysis from Colorado’s Mile High Hockey blog. From here it looks like a trade that helps out all three teams.
  • A great Maclean’s piece on the rise of hockey in the United States. Maybe moving into the sunbelt regions wasn’t such a bad idea for the game after all.
  • As much as there is to like about David Booth on the second line for the Canucks, they still need one more offensive piece and a defenseman, if they plan on making another Cup run this year. Mason Raymond hasn’t looked like a top-six player all year, and the blueline remains inconsistent.
  • Since the free advice is flowing, here’s some for Nashville GM David Poile – there might not be a better year to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Who knows if you’ll ever have Ryan Suter and Shea Weber under contract again, you’ve got the young assets to move, and you’re one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Ales Hemsky, Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, etc. etc. – go get some deadline offense and push your chips into the middle of the table.
  • In case you missed it, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
  • I know Antoine Vermette is struggling, but this return for him certainly doesn’t give anyone confidence Scott Howson is the type of GM who can maximize the return in any Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade. It also doesn’t address their goaltending issues either.
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