This might date myself a tad, but I recall where I was in 1994 on May 24th. I was at home in New Westminster, tightly clenching my hands together in a tightly clenched prayer style shape. What happened to make me do this? The Vancouver Canucks, the local NHL team here was in double overtime against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in game 5 of a best of 7 series we were leading 3-1. If we scored, we went to the finals for only the 2nd time ever (the first time I too lived thru, but didnt really understand the severity of it at the time since I was of an age still in single digits, we would lose in 4 straight games in the finals that year to the New York Islanders). A B.C. boy by the name of Greg Adams, whom we obtained in a trade with the New Jersey Devils several years prior would score the eventual winner 14 seconds into that 2nd overtime on a backhander that he slipped by future Canuck Felix Potvin. We were headed to the Stanley Cup finals. It was monumental in this cities sports history. We eventually would lose in the finals to the New York Rangers in game 7 by a narrow 3-2 score, but that moment is to many in Vancouver, 1 of the cities biggest in sports history.
So imagine the shock to Canucks fans who have endured that once before, when 17 years later, we found ourselves on May 24th, in a Western Conference finals, with a 3-1 series lead, in double overtime at home...again. by now, every die hard Canucks fan, casual fan, fairweather fan & even some non-fans know how that game ended. It ended with 1 of the zaniest series clinching goals ever, as Kevin Bieksa knucklepucked a shot from the point past an unaware Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks. Of the 18000+ fans in attendace, 2 TV crews & dozen players on the ice, it seemed maybe a 1/2 a dozen people total were aware that after an Alex Edler dump in off the boards that the puck deflected off a stanchion & back out into the middle of the ice. 1 of those rare people, Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks defender moved in towards the puck that gifted itself to him & drove a hard slap shot towards the Sharks net that wobbled & skipped its way past a confused Niemi. Fans were so unaware of what was going on, they only reacted when the likes of Alex Burrows & Henrik Sedin, near the net reacted. Sharks players reacted, but far too late, even Kevins own teammates were not all aware of what was about to happen. Another generation of Canucks fans will remember that moment, regardless how the finals end. Its 1 of those moments that sticks with you. Just like Greg Adams in 1994 on the very same date.
Of course, after the win, while the players partied in the dressing room together, fans did the same, out in public on the streets of downtown Vancouver. Granville street was completely closed off to traffic, as fans poured out to high five other strangers, wave their towels & flags & yell any & all phrases they could think of to express their jubilation. I saw a faux greenman, I saw an even sadder imposter- a blue man, I saw 30+ Stanley Cups of all types roaming the streets, being hoisted high & I also saw 2 creatures (pictured below) that I still dont have an explantion for, dressed in Henrik Sedin jerseys, sporting what I can only describe as some type of weird egg type head gear.
A couple of observations. The crowd seemed quite content & happy. Never saw even 1 angry look from 1 person to another. Im sure there were some mild issues, but they were few & far between...unlike when I was in Edmonton during their Cup run where there was stabbings almost nightly it seemed. There was also sadly for us guys (and girls here wonder why the world over consider girls here "snobby") no Red Mile action like in Calgary during their Cup run. The boobs in this town refuse to come out. To be honest, the overall electricity & excitement of the crowd, while high, was still short of anything I have seen in Edmonton, Calgary or even Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. Will it be different if they win the Cup??? Perhaps. Starting June 1st, the Vancouver Canucks will try to do something they havent done in 39 previous seasons, 23 playoff appearances & 2 Finals appearances. Win the Stanley Cup. The oppnent, yet to be decided. Either the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that crushed the Calgary Flames hopes last time in 2004, or the Boston Bruins, the team that last lost a Championship to 1 of the Western Canadian teams in 1990 to the Edmonton Oilers. One thing is certain, Canucks fans probably are pretty thrilled, it wont be a team from New York.
April 26, 2011 is a day that fans of the Vancouver Canucks will hold in nearly the same light as June 11, 1994 is, or May 6, 1982. Of course, those dates are known by many fans as the dates of the Canucks last Stanley Cup finals win, game 6 vs the New York Rangers and of course the date that the Canucks won their first Campbell Conference trophy with a 6-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals.
The date of April 26th 2011, although it is the date of nothing more than a 1st round victory that enables them to advance to the 2nd round for the 4th time in 5 years is a theraputic date for both the fans & players of the Canucks. It is the day their team was finally able to slay the mental beast of the Chicago Blackhawks.
For the 2 playoff years prior the Canucks ended up with the Hawks in round 2 of the playoffs. In both of those series the Canucks started the series off on top. Being up 1-0 & 2-1 in 2009 was not enough, as they would eventually crumble after that going out in 6 games. In 2010, the chance to get revenge appeared to be there, the Canucks were a better regular season team, but the Hawks, with the extra year of playoff experience were a more formidable opponent & despite giving the Canucks game 1, would eventually again end the series in 6. That version of the Hawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, in the salary cap era, many notable pieces of their cup run like their heroic goalie Antti Niemi, scoring depth forward Andrew Ladd & power forward extraordinaire Dustin Byfuglien were tossed aside to make cap space.
Fast forward to 2011. The Canucks win the Presidents Trophy for leagues top regular season team. They win the Jennings trophy for best team goals against. For the 2nd year in a row they have an Art Ross Trophy winner, as Daniel Sedin equals his brother Henrik in that category. The top Power Play in the league, top in goals, and top in goals against. The Canucks appeared almost unbeatable. On the other side stood the Chicago Blackhawks, a team who backed into the very last spot in the playoffs after they failed to win a "win & your in" game & had to watch hopelessly as another team, the Dallas Stars failed the same task, giving the Hawks the 8th seed.
Many wondered if the Hawks of old would mentally phase the Canucks of now. In the 1st 3 games of the series, it looked absurd to think it. The Canucks won those meetings, taking a seemingly insurmountable series 3-0 lead. Then "it" happened. Somehow, somewhere, the nagging ghosts of the past got into the Canucks heads. For games 4 & 5, it seemed like the wheels had completely blown out on the Canucks road to the cup. Losing by a combined 12-2 over those two games, and seeing their Vezina candidate goaltender Roberto Luongo chased in both games. In game 6, they gave rookie Cory Schneider a chance to run with it. The kid did well, although 2 glaring gaffes gave the Blackhawks enough life, that eventually they would go on to down the Canucks in OT 4-3 when rookie Ben Smith added to the cities misery with a lucky backhand flick of his stick. While this game saw a far better Canucks effort, including that of Luongo, who came in for relief duty from Schneider after a minor injury. The consensus being they were the better team & were perhaps robbed by suspect reffing, the fact was, they were finding themselves in a do or die, game 7 against a team that has managed to come from behind 2 years in a row to steal a series from them.
On April 26, 2011, game 7 would take place at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The visiting Hawks came in with little pressure on them....
Allow me to sidetrack this for a moment. As an autograph hound, we often get to observe players in ways many others, including media & other players dont. It was evident to me, a veteran of seeing playoff hockey teams in various stages of preparation, they were TOO focussed. The little things were clearly an aggitation to them. They werent loose like in game 5, they were trying to avoid interaction with people, trying to look serious & all in all, trying too hard to be focused on the task at hand. The lack of relaxation & carefree attitude they showed prior made me think, they are nervous going in. They went from carefree & relaxed, to nervous & trying too hard to focus.
Ok, so back on to the events.
The game started with an early chance for the Canucks when goalless in 13 playoff games against the Hawks winger & 41 goal regular season man Ryan Kesler made a great solo effort to get close to the goal before he made a diagonal pass behind him to Alex Burrows who snuck in & planted it behind rookie goalie Corey Crawford. The Canucks would seemingly dominate most of the game after that. yet were unable to bury many chances. There was first Henrik Sedin inexplicably passing to Burrows on a chance where he clearly had the more open shot, Alex Burrows missing a penalty shot, and of course snakebitten Ryan Kesler having the best chance on a 2nd rebound chance late in the 3rd period that he put directly into Crawfords glove. With only 3:17 left in the game the Canucks got what many expected was the nail in the coffin. The Hawks Norris winning defenseman Duncan Keith would go off for a tripping penalty. The Canucks would have 2 minutes out of the last 3:17 with a power play. Game over, right? Wrong. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, himself goalless in the playoffs made a great rush towards the net that saw the puck eventually go to Marian Hossa who would direct a shot on goal, leaving a rebound for the opportunistic Toews to bury behind Luongo shorthanded with only 1:56 remaining in regulation time.
With the city of Vancouver's ego quickly deflated, Canucks nation sat nervously waiting for the start of OT. Once OT started they got some scary news early. Mr. Everything in the game Alex Burrows went off for 2 minutes for holding just 24 seconds in. But the Canucks managed to kill that penalty. Less than 3 minutes after Burrows penalty expired, he would taken a lucky break from a Chris Campoli mistake, cut in towards the middle of the empty attacking zone ice & slap a shot over the shoulder of Corey Crawford into the back of the cage & the game, the series, and the questions & demons were OVER.
The city that wanted this revenge so bad that they coined the term "3Venge" on twitter got their result from a hero they earlier in the series (myself included) criticized for his lack of offense. Alex Burrows had 3 goals in the final 2 games, and of course, the biggest being the series clinching game 7 overtime goal after taking the only penalty of OT.
Next up for the Canucks is Nashville Predators. While no one will admit it, and they really shouldnt. many Canucks fans are right now so thrilled with the result in hand they are willing to say "if we somehow lose to Nashville, its still a good year imo because we beat Chicago finally".. its a mentality that hopefully the Canucks themselves dont have. Because a team that wont practicallyeverything in the regular season shouldnt be happy with 1 playoff round victory... even if it was against their biggest demon.
For the record, there is a new demon to exorcize. The Canucks havent passed round 2 since 1994. In that time they have got to round 2 FIVE TIMES, losing to the Hawks three times, the Ducks once & the Wild once (which I was forced to witness in person during a game 7 collapse). But, until that demon comes to town...lets celebrate slaying this one.
part 2 of the list..
5TH HENRIK SEDIN - ART ROSS TROPHY & HART TROPHY WINNER
I dare you to find a single person anywhere on the planet, including in Sweden, in Vancouver, or even in the Sedin household who would have boldly stated at the start of the 09-10 season the leagues MVP & scoring champion would be 1 of the Vancouver Canucks longtime twin brothers.
While the brothers Daniel & Henrik have certainly stepped into that elite star level in the past couple years, even I, one of their biggest supporters since day 1, could not have guessed, let alone believed 1 of them would win the Art Ross Trophy & later that year, be awarded the Hart Trophy.
The more amazing part is, the common (and previously proven on multiple occasions) misconception that the brothers are less effective when seperated was blown out of the water when Henrik had to play without Daniel at his side for 19 games due to an injury to his brother early on in the season.
Henrik Sedin became the Vancouver Canucks 1st ever scoring champion, 1st ever Hart Trophy winner & the teams newest Captain in the year 2010. Making Hanks scoring title more amazing was the down to the wire fight he had with two of the games biggest icons, Alex Ovechkin & Sidney Crosby & his memorable 4 point final game, which was of course topped off by his final point of the year, a no look tip pass to his brother for Daniels 3rd goal of the game, Henriks 112th point & a TSN Play Of The Year win.
For a franchise that has been often tagged with a label of failure & underachievers, having a player win 2 of the major awards at once is one of the biggest moments in this franchises long & frustrating career. With the exceptions of this teams Stanley Cup Finals runs of 1982 & 1994, nothing in this franchises history comes even remotely close to the accomplishment of Hank last season.
The start of the 2010-11 season has seen the Sedins work their magic even more, with both brothers currently in the top 10 in league scoring it looks like 2011 will again be a big year for the Canucks future top 2 all-time point scorers for the franchise.
4th CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS- STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS
It wasnt that long ago that the only way the Blackhawks & Stanley Cup Champions were ever mentioned in the same sentence was when they were facing the Detroit Red Wings in a game during the season.
But since the death of Bill Wirtz, the cancerous soffocating owner of the team, the Hawks had started to soar. With draftees like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane & Duncan Keith in recent years, the fans started to think things might be turning around.
In 2010, they turned around alright. The Hawks went from the "up & coming" team to THE TEAM as they went on to win their 1st Stanley Cup in 49 years off the stick of their cornerstone player, Patrick Kane in overtime of game 6 of the finals over the Philadelphia Flyers on 1 of the most anti-climactic ends to a hockey championship ever.
The Hawks other wonder foward, Jonathan Toews, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP after a 29 pts in 22 games performance.
The Hawks started the playoffs against the Nashville Predators, a series they once trailed 2-1, but eventually won 4-2. Next up was the Vancouver Canucks, a team who most assumed would be ready to get revenge for the Hawks upsetting them the year prior. But they never were really in the series, and would eventually be knocked out by Chicago 4-2. The San Jose Sharks, who for several years had been continually considered "Cup contenders" got the closest they have gotten since the lockout, but would be swept by the flying Hawks 4-0.
In the Stanley Cup finals, the Hawks faced the Philadelphia Flyers. A team that came into the playoffs barely, and would become only the 3rd NHL team to win a series after being down 3-0 when they beat the Boston Bruins earlier in the playoffs. As it turned out though, Chicago was just too much for them. Despite the first 4 games being tied 2-2 & only 1 goal difference between the teams, it was starting to look like the Hawks might be getting better. In game 5, they showed their bite, winning 7-4 & knocking the wind out of the Flyers sails. Philadelphia put up a strong fight in game 6, but were defeated in OT when Patrick Kane slipped a shot past Michael Leighton that fooled everyone outside of Kane for several seconds.
With only ONE playoff round in 11 years, just 2 years prior, few expected the Hawks to make this surge this quick, but after a surprising run 2009 that saw them get to the Conference finals before bowing out, a lot of eyes were focused on them in the spring of 2010 & they dd not disappoint.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, the NHL Salary Cap hit them hard after their Cup win & several very notable pieces of the team, including their #1 goalie, a notable power forward (who also makes the list further down) & a couple other skill players have departed, leaving the Hawks as a good, but not great team now.
3rd- PAT BURNS NOT SELECTED TO THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
Imagine if you would, the idea of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley or Don Shula being deathly ill, retired for more than 3 years from their profession, the HOF committee being abundantly aware they likely will not survive a year...and excluding them from the Hall in the most recent selection.
If you think its unimaginable. This is what happened this year to the only 3 time winner of the coach of the year award in the NHL, Pat Burns. Burns was diagnosed with terminal cancer awhile ago, this past year he was eligible for the Hall. The Hall was made very aware by massive campaigns to have Burns put in the hall before his impending death, of his situation. However the committee, who are not held accountable for their actions by ANYONE, pulled the most classless of actions in snubbing Pat in favour of a man who was himself already deceased.
The largest complaint amongst Burns supporters were, Doc Seaman could have waited till another year, as he had already passed away, Burns, still currently alive & clearly dying soon, could at least get to experience the ceremony. But the Hall didnt seem to care. The lack of respect they showed Burns by neglecting to include him (a person EVERYONE knows is going in anyways) while he was still alive has made many analysts, players & fans sick to their stomach & it has really tarnished the committee & made people show them little to no respect.
With the most ever coach of the year honours in the league, a Stanley Cup title & constantly deemed one of the greatest coaches of recent times all under Burns cap, the Hall seemed like a no-brainer...unfortunately, people with less than no brain were in charge of picking.
2nd- WOMEN PLAYERS IN THE HALL OF FAME
A couple years ago, the HHOF made an announcement that women could now be elected into the Hockey Hall Of Fame on their merits in their sport, and would no longer be compared to the mens game for the rare spots in the hall.
This year, the HHOF Committee made the major decision to include the 1st women's hockey players in the Hall. Canadian Angela James, long considered the "Wayne Gretzky of hockey" before Hayley Wickenheiser would take over in this more media covered era went in along side American Cammi Granato, the captain of the 1st ever Olympic Champion women's hockey team.
Cammi & Angela went in along with NHLer Dino Ciccarelli. While the poorly informed fans yelled at the top of their lungs the injustice of several NHLers being ignored in place of the womens stars, those that understood the process applauded the HHOF Committee at their inclusion, yet chastized them in the same breath for not selecting more NHLers with a backlog of big stars waiting & more to come. What some seem to still not understand, even months later is... that Granato & James were never "stealing" spots from the NHLers, as they were selected on their own merits in their own category, like builders.
The two stars made names for themselves in the sport in different ways. Cammi, the captain of the only American Olympic Gold medal winning team, was raised into a hockey family that included former NHLer Tony Granato. Her career included a successful College career, lots of time with the U.S. National team & a short stop at the end of her career in the WWHL.
Angela never got to play in the Olympics, as she was cut for the final roster of the first ever squad to go to the Olympics in 1998. Till this day, questions of whether the slap in the face to her may have bitten the silver medal squad the Canadians went with in the butt are asked. James career was spent playing against boys, and eventually in the league that would eventually (thru a couple name changes) become the CWHL many years later. She got to play for Team Canada a few times on the World stage, but never in the Olympics. The moniker of "The Wayne Gretzky of womens hockey" was often placed on her before the newer generation adopted the same title for the now best player in the game, Hayley Wickenheiser.
Many have wondered how the Hall can be so incompetent in excluding Burns from the Hall, yet so intuitive as to include women's players, in the very same year.
With women's hockey having large boosts this year with the Olympics, the emergence of the CWHL as their premiere league and now the inclusion of players in the Hall Of Fame, 2010 was a pretty great year for the sport of women's hockey.
In future years, the likes of Heaney, Nieminen, Goyette, Wickenheiser and more will enter. In most cases, it will be thanks to Cammi Granato & Angela James taking those first steps in that they will find their road in much more accepted.
1st - OH CANADA!!
It is an event that only happens every 4 years & in recent versions the NHL's finest have taken to the worlds largest winter sports stage.
The 2010 Olympic Winter games took part in my hometown, Vancouver, BC, Canada this past year & with the worlds eyes on our city, our home teams did not disappoint.
Canada won both the women's & mens Gold medal. While the womens tournament was a bit lopsided from the top 2 teams to the mid tier teams, the mens event, unarguably the marquee event of the Olympics, was some of the best hockey ever seen. Upstarts like Switzerland (who took Canada to a shootout in the round robin tourney) & Slovakia (the 9th ranked IIHF team coming in) caused the big boys of the tourney headaches & showed that there might be hope for these nations in the near future.
With millions of Canadians nervously watching, holding on to a fleeting 1 goal lead, American Zach Parise caused a near national mass suicide when he tied the game up with 25 seconds left in regulation. In the end however, it did nothing more than make a dramatic storybook ending, even more storybook. The stick of Sidney Crosby would inevetably be the most important in Vancouver, as his overtime winning goal past American goaltender Ryan Miller, would send not just a city, or even the province, but the entire country into a frenzy. The bronze medal would see Olli Jokinen score the game winning goal to give Finland the bronze over the upstart Slovakian team, powered by the incredible goaltending of Jaroslav Halak.
The women's tourney saw a new superstar emerge for Canada, as Marie Philip Poulin, an 18 year old became the hero, scoring the only 2 goals in the Gold Medal game, while Olympic rookie goalie Shannon Szabados shut the door at the other end allowing Canada to win their 3rd straight Gold medal 2-0 over the U.S. team. In the bronze medal game, Finland would knock off the 2006 silver medalist Swedes in overtime with a Karolina Rantamaki bankshot that fooled Swedish goalie Sara Grahn.
In the mens tourney, things were considered great. For the NHL, the Canada vs USA final was a dream match for the powers that be. The only way the leagues midget troll of doom would have been happier about the outcome was if it were played in Hawaii or San Diego. However on the women's side, the dominance of Canada & USA again has angered the powers that be of the IOC & they have made ridiculous threats on the women's side of the sport to become more competitive or lose their spot.... despite the mens tournament being FAR more lopsided in its infancy.
Canada, USA, Finland was the gold, silver & bronze medal finshers in both tournies. That is the first time the same result for medals happened on both sides of the tournament.
The year 2011 is already a couple weeks old now & stories may already be developing that in fact opening day of the year could have seen 2 top 10 stories in the same game when Alex Ovechkin did a faceplant trying to take a shot on the soggy, possibly unsafe conditions of Heinz Field for the Winter Classic, and the possibility the games biggest marketing tool could have been knocked out of the line up for awhile in the same game as Sidney Crosby took a serious hit that has sidelined him for a few games since then.
A little piece of trivia for you new fans to the game of hockey. The Vancouver Canucks used to actually play in Vancouver. True story.
The Canucks, who might have started to wonder if NHL stands for Nomad Hockey League wrapped up a very impressive 14 game, 13 city, 6 week voyage that saw them go 8-5-1 on the trip & gain 17 of a possible 28 points. Not too shabby for a team that came in 1 game below .500 on the road prior to the odyssey.
This feat is even more impressive when you consider Henrik & Daniel Sedin had 6 goals combined on the road trip. Add in Mason Raymond (2 goals) to the goal challenged list & you start to wonder how they won 4 games, let alone 8.
Big performances by Mikael Samuelsson (10 goals), Ryan Kesler (6 goals...and an 11 game point streak), Alex Burrows (7 goals..including some without the Sedins) and a couple timely Jannik Hansen goals, and the goal production was not so bad after all.
The big story of the trip however, was comebacks. It started the 1st game of the trip when the Canucks spotted the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs a 3-0 1st period lead, but roared back to win 5-3 with revenge filled back up Andrew Raycroft coming in to pick up the win in relief duty. Boston Bruins would be spotted a 2-0 1st period lead before the Canucks would win in a SO 3-2. By the time they did it in Columbus, where they trailed 3-1 in the 2nd period, it almost seemed expected. Winning 4-3. Doing it to Columbus twice in a matter of weeks was the moment the "comeback kids" title seemed to really make the rounds with this team. Trailing 2-0, then 3-2 to the Blue Jackets, the Canucks again came from behind & won, again, 4-3 when Christian Ehrhoff scored in overtime. They were down 2-1 to Nashville at the end of 2 periods, but came back to win 4-2. They saved the best for nearly last. After trailing 3-0 at the end of the 1st period, and 4-1 with less than 1/2 a game to play, the Canucks roared back against divisional challengers, Colorado Avalanche, to win 6-4 on the back of a Mikael Samuelsson 2nd period hat trick & Jannick Hansen getting his 2nd straight game winning goal. Even their final battle of the road trip in Phoenix showed the same mentality, that they can do anything. Phoenix had the lead 3-2 early in the 3rd period, but the Canucks tied it up & only finally lost it in the 6th round of a shoot out.
That is 13 points this team obtained in road games that they trailed. Many in the 3rd period. How can you even explain that type of effort?
The likelyhood of a great road trip is even more shocking when you consider the sub-par stats of starter Roberto Luongo compared to his backup, Andrew Raycroft. In goal they had a solid, but not necessarily great effort by back up Andrew Raycroft, who played in part or all of 7 games on the trip. His 3-1-1 record, .914 SPCT & a 2.31 GAVE were a welcomed addition. While Olympic Gold medal winning back stop, Roberto Luongo had a more modest 5-4-0 record, .888 SPCT & a 3.53 GAVE. It was not some of Luis best hockey, yet somehow, the team managed to keep pulling out wins for him, like in Colorado where he surrendered 3 1st period goals, but got the W at the end of the night. It wasnt lights out great goaltending, but it got the job done on the trip.
The fact these guys managed to get above .500 on the trip when you take into consideration some of the things has to be chalked up to pure willpower. Their top 2 players barely scored, one of their top secondary scorers barely scored, they had a brutally thin blueline & their top goalie didnt play like a top goalie some nights. Yet they got it done. Whether it was Mikael Samuelsson, Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, someone kept coming up with the much needed timely goals to help them win.
In the grand scheme of 82 games, a 14 game stretch really shouldnt be the make or break of any season, but for the Canucks this likely was. Imagine if they finished the playing 1 game below .500 hockey, like they had on the road going into the trip this season. A 6-7-1 record would put them 4 points further back & no longer in the division lead, clinging onto 6th in the conference for their lives, and perhaps even worse depending who the extra losses would end up being to. If it was Colorado & Nashville, they are suddenly 7th & 3 pts back of the division lead.
The Vancouver Canucks will, barring a horrid collapse, finish with a playoff spot & possibly, a division title. This road trip, although only 17% of the season, meant more to their season than probably 25% in the long run. They survived it, maybe even thrived on it & developed a team game that might help them thru the rest of a season where they will be without staple defemseman Willie Mitchell & even worse, the possibility that Kevin Bieksa will be back.
Probably no team this season has had a more important 14 game stretch this season than the Canucks. Without question, no one had a bigger road trip... Mentally, or literally.
With the season just slightly over 1/2 over, the race for the playoffs is starting to clear a bit. Teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets & the Carolina Hurricanes are already trying to envision what to do about the team in the off season. While at the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks & San Jose Sharks are looking ahead & trying to figure out what they might need to tweak for their Stanley Cup pursuits.
Mired in the middle is a cluster of teams that frankly includes the majority of the league. Right now they are either just in or just barely out of the playoffs, a simple 3 game slide here, or 4 game streak here can put them out or in the playoff race in a flash. Mixed right in the middle, the Vancouver Canucks.
Currently 6th in the west with 58 points in 48 games, the Canucks sit just 2 points ahead of the 9th place Detroit Red Wings and only 7 ahead of Minnesota Wild & Dallas Stars. They are also only 2 points out of 3rd in the conference, behind their divisional foes from Colorado. But if the Canucks know anything about their season to date, its that they are probably more focused now on maintaining a playoff spot than chasing a division title.
While they are in the mix for a division championship, the fact remains that the Canucks, will be road warrios for the longest road trip in NHL history coming up very soon. Its a road trip that will span 14 games over 6 weeks. See the Canucks are being evicted from their home to make way for the Olympics. Because of this, they will play 20 of their final 35 games on the road....a place that has not been all that pleasant for them this season.
In their first 21 road games, the Canucks have a 9-11-1 record. While they run wild at home with an 19-7-1 record, they have struggled on the road. If there is any saving grace, its that only 10 of those final 20 road games are against teams currently sitting in a playoff spot. They can also take some comfort in the fact they are 3-1-1 in the last 5 road games perhaps. All that aside though, this extended road trip will certainly be the true test of this team.
In the middle of this road trip is a 2 week break for the Olympics. If they struggle in the first half of the trip, they will at least have time to correct the problem perhaps. This can also work against them though. If they have a decent first half on this raod trip, they could potentially lose all the momentum they have built up with 2 weeks away from the rink.
There is also the potential fatigue factor of their top players. With 7 Olympains on the roster, including their most notable pieces, Roberto Luongo, Daniel & Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler & Christian Ehrhoff, the 2 weeks of elite level do or die play could really wear on some players. Granted every team has this problem, but every team isnt going to be doing this in the middle of a 14 game road trip.
In a league where a team that is 8 games above .500 is not in the playoffs right now in their conference, the Canucks can not afford to have a mediocre road trip. A .500 road trip could conceivably end their playoff hopes. By the time this marathon is over, they will have just a little over a month of the season left to rally back from any holes they have made for themselves.
The top line of Sedin-Sedin-Burrows is magical in their own building where line matching benefits them, on the road however, they are less magical & this will mean the Canucks will need to rely on secondary scorers like Mason Raymond, Ryan Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson & a hopefully healthy Pavol Demitra to pick up the slack. They could use the likes of Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier to pick up their play as well.
Their defense core is solid, when healthy. Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler and Sami Salo are quite capable puck moves, while Willie Mitchell, Shane O'Brien and Aaron Rome are capable defensive defenders. But when they have injuries they do seem to be out of sync a bit. Brad Lukowich is a decent NHL defenseman, but the level of skill drops off considerably from there. With Kevin Bieksa out, the Canucks will need to keep healthy thru this trip on the back end.
How will Luongo react to this stretch? He could in theory be playing close to 20 games over this stretch if he plays the majority of Canucks games, and Olympics games. Of course, the likelyhood is he will get only some starts at the Olympics. Which means he should have a bit of rest. Problem will be if he gets too much rest (say he doesnt play for the final 4 or 5 games). Luongo has a long history of starting slow after any type of extended break away from action. This has to worry the Canucks going down the stretch where points will be vitally needed & they will be on the road to start. A cold Luongo might end the Canucks playoff hopes in early March. Andrew Raycroft, the back up has been very good this year & could be relied on to take some of the load off, but if coach Vigneault has one flaw in his coaching, its that his confidence in his back up goalie, despite a very good record, seems to not be there for whatever reason.
This team has been ravaged with injuries this season & over a 14 game stretch, the probability of an injury is realistic. What the Canucks cant afford, is injuries to any of their major pieces, this goes for the entire top 2 lines, defense pairs, and of course Luongo. Any pieces missing could literally destroy a team that will probably struggle thru this venture.
If the Canucks get out of the odyssey close or still in the playoff race, they will probably be ecstatic. They have 10 of their last 15 games of the season at home, a place they have been exceptionally strong this season. But that is a long way away & they first have to worry about getting thru the adventure that will be the make or break part of their season, an incredible 14 game road trip. No team in the league will have any homestand or road trip more vital to their playoff positioning than this 6 week, 13 city, 14 game road trip.
If the Canucks miss the playoffs, fans & critics alike will probably look to this horrible schedule as the downfall. While players & coaches generally dont like to use easily found excuses for shortcomings, this is a blatantly obvious one that cant be overlooked. Of course, if the Canucks do make the playoffs, even if by the thinnest of margains, you will have to take them very seriously at a run in the playoffs. Afterall, if they can survive the road trip & still have enough in the tank to pull them thru it & into the playoffs, then you have to wonder what does it take to put them down. To make the playoffs would likely mean a winning record on the road thru that stretch, and ontop of that, confidence in their abilities on the road. This trip will either break them, or will rally them around each other & possibly create the type of team building that championship teams desperately hope for.
The season might say 82 games on the schedule, but any Canucks fan, reporter, player or staff member knew when the schedule came out, their season really came down to 14 games and 6 weeks.
The defending Olympic champions come into the 2010 Olympics ranked 3rd.
Sweden will be looking to repeat their 2006 performance. They seem to have a Gold, bronze or 5th place mentality when it comes to the Olympics in recent years. They havent finished in a spot other than those three places since 1972. 2 golds, 3 bronze, 3 5th place finishes in that time.
The team will be coming in with a legitimate star studded team that could include the likes of Peter Forsberg if his comeback over in Sweden is coming along as well as he hopes it is. With the Sedin twins, Alfredsson & Zetterberg rounding out the top offensive units, you can expect them to be able to play a run & gun game with any country out there.
In goal, all world star Henrik Lundqvist will be front & centre. The back up role will likely go to NHLer Johan Hedberg. The 3rd string goalie may be NHLer Gustavsson if he is healthy enough to play, but its more than likely going to a SEL goalie, perhaps Markstrom.
On defense they have Nick Lidstrom. Do you really need more? Some of their younger guys like Enstrom, Edler & Stralman have all had terrific years & make their d-core much stronger than it might have been even a year ago.
Henrik Lundqvist- NEW YORK RANGERS (NHL) The top goalie in Sweden is undoubtedly Lundqvist. He'll be given the number 1 spot & even if he stumbles, its unlikely he'll be replaced.
Mikael Tellqvist- KAZAN AK-BARS/LUKKO RAAMA (KHL/FINLAND) A former NHL back up, Mikael started the year in the KHL did well there, but recently moved to Finland to play. I originally had Johan Hedberg in this spot, only to find out he isnt eligible for the tournament.
Jacob Markstrom- BRYNAS IF GAVLE (SEL) Barring injuury, Markstrom is probably just here to watch the tournament.
Nick Lidstrom- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) 6 Norros Trophies. Enough said.
Niklas Kronwall- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) If hes healthy enough, hes in for sure.
Tobias Enstrom- ATLANTA THRASHERS (NHL) Having an exceptional year offensively. Tobias will very likely be seen as a QB for the PP.
Alex Edler- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) Having the best year of his career so far, Alex has a minor injury right now, but is expected back in plenty of time for the Olympics. Will be primarily 2nd unit ES & PP.
Anton Stralman- COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (NHL) Another player having an exceptional career year, Anton will get some PP time & probable 3rd unit ES time.
Niklas Hjalmarsson- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) Expect him out there on most PK situations & ES.
Henrik Tallinder- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL) If the are looking for more defensive responsibility, Tallinder might draw in ahead of Stralman. Another PK option.
Daniel Sedin- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) After an early season injury that kept him out 6 wks, he has returned with a vengeance & has helped his twin brother vault near the top of the leagues scoring leaders.
Henrik Sedin- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) Right now 3rd in the entire NHL in pts. Henrik showed he isnt just an exceptional passer this season, but capable of scoring too. His brother & him will be 2/3 of the top line.
Nicklas Backstrom- WASHINGTON CAPITALS (NHL) One of the top players on one of the top teams, Nicklas has cemented himself as a probable number 2 centre. Only question will be if Forsberg is handed that spot instead.
Daniel Alfredsson- OTTAWA SENATORS (NHL) Whether its Forsberg or Backstrom, Alfie will be the other top end scorer on the 2nd line.
Henrik Zetterberg- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) Probable top line linemate for the Sedin twins. Question right now with a recent injury. If it is long term, he might not be added.
Peter Forsberg- MODO ORNSKODLSVIK (SEL) Absolutely dominating the Swedish league since returning. Peter could be the #2 centre, if not he'll at the least have the 3rd line spot.
Tomas Holmstrom- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) One of the best 2 way players in teh game, Tomas will be looked upon for offensive support, and defensive responsibility. A 3rd line lock who could fill in 2nd line duties if someone struggles.
Loui Eriksson- DALLAS STARS (NHL) An offensive contributor, will likely get 3rd line duties here.
Samuel Pahlsson- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) A checking forward who is a near lock for the teams checking line.
Mikael Samuelsson- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) I'm not sold on him being there, but due to a lack of other options (Bergfors ineligible & Franzen still injured) Samuelsson will probably make hiw way onto the team. If Franzen is healthy, he'll bump Samuelsson most likely.
Tom Wandell- DALLAS STARS (NHL) Will probably be another checking line addition with Pahlsson.
Mattias Weinhandl- MOSCOW DYNAMO (KHL) Strong contributor in the KHL offensively, Mattias might sneak into a top line spot with the Sedins where he has played & had success before.
Tony Martensson- LINKOPING HC (SEL) The top scorer in the SEL, Tony will probably be here more for image in Sweden than actual playing time. Might get into the line up, but will more likely be scratched most nights.
maybe- Jonas Gustavsson, Johan Holmqvist, Viktor Hedman, Doug Murray, David Petrasek, Johan Franzen.