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.
2011 NHL Playoffs - 2011 Presidents Trophy winners exorcize their 1st demon. Vancouver Canucks beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks to advance to round 2.
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.
Here is my picks for the top 10 hockey stories of 2010. Starting from 10th. This is part 1.
10TH NHL'ERS TAKING TO TWITTER EN MASS
Ever wanted to know what Bobby Ryan was doing right now? Have you really been wanting to tell Erik Johnson what you think of his play? Well, now you can do that thru twitter.
The fastest growing media/social networking tool on the internet is twitter. Its that place where you can post something, long as it fits into a 140 character frame. While not every NHL'er is on twitter, many of the games rising stars are.
If twitter were a team, they would have some pretty good talent to draw from. Alex Ovechkin, Martin Havlat, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Kesler, Patrik Elias, Mike Cammalleri, TJ Oshie, Wojtek Wolski, James Van Riemsdyk, Logan Couture, Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik, Joffrey Lupul, Evander Kane, Maxim Talbot, Scottie Upshall, Steve Sullivan & Matt Duchene on offense. Dan Boyle, Mike Green, Mike Del Zotto, Mike Komisarek, Karl Alzner, Mike Commodore and Brent Sopel on defense. The only thing they are lacking is some goalies. Not 1 notable goaltender seems to be on twitter.....since Dan Ellis closed his up.
While some accounts are now very inactive (Ovechkin hasnt tweeted in over a year), others, such as Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette are very active, and very entertaining, like his post from Christmas day "Going to adrian aucoin's house for dinner tonight. Ganna be tough to top D morris's party last night. Unless aucoin rented a circus midget?". In a business where ANY media is better than none, the raw, uncensored & usually entertaining posts of a fringe player like Bissonnette can make him a more attractive option for a team come free agency than another player of similar talents. With over 30,000 followers, a team could look at him as a free marketing tool & a source of a few more sold jerseys than if they signed the tough guy who doesnt have a twitter account.
Some players use it to just tweet about life, like Michael Rupp, while others use it more to promote business ventures they are a part of like Ryan Kesler, the reality is with close to a 100 NHLers on twitter, and dozens more former NHLers, it has become a place for the regular fans, media & other players, to interact & get an inside look at the lives of the NHLers.
The NHL, perhaps more than any of the other major sports has the most to gain from this free promotional tool. While the NBA, NFL & MLB also have tweeters in large numbers, its the NHL who can gain the most from it. Its free promotion for a sport that still in many sections of society hasnt recovered from the lockout, or had notable exposure at all. Everytime the NHL can squeeze their product into a tweet, especially one that makes the trending topics list, its getting its product out to a massive potential new clientel that they would never reac the conventional way or marketing. Even the AHL, CWHL, WWHL, WHL, OHL & various smaller leagues are using it to promote their leagues as well. Again, while other sports are doing the same, the sport of hockey might have more to gain per tweet than the other sports.
9TH CWHL HAS 1ST EVER DRAFT
The most notable women's hockey league in the world had their first ever draft this past summer.
On August 12th this year, the sport of women's hockey took a big step, they had the first official draft in a major women's league. While the previous NWHL & the current WWHL from out west have never had such an event, the fairly new CWHL did have one.
The league didnt have a full draft open to all teams though, as the league acknowledges some of the hardships a player in the league could face if they were selected by a team far from their home & family. So the draft was only to divide up the talent available to the 3 Greater Toronto region teams, Toronto Aeros, Burlington Barracudas & the Brampton Canadettes-Thunder. The other two teams in the league, Montreal Stars & the Boston Blades, both took to free agent signing to fill their rosters.
Toronto, Burlington & Brampton took part in the draft, that allowed the three teams to select any players from GTA region, or overseas. 22 players between the 5 teams were deemed "protected" & the 3 teams selected a total of 101 names were selected.
Tessa Bonhomme, a member of the 2010 Canadian Gold Medal winning Olympic team was the 1st selection in the draft for Toronto.
Burlington would pick 2nd, taking Ashley Riggs, a highly decorated Canadian College hockey player.
Brampton would pick 5th, taking former Canadian National team star, Delaney Collins.
A handful of Europeans were also selected. Most notably was Daniela Rundqvist from Sweden 13th overall by Burlington. Yekaterina Smolentseva selected 89th by Brampton was the only Russian selected in the draft. Finland had 3 picks, Anna Vanhatalo (Brampton) Marjo Voutilainen (Burlington) & Terhi Mertanen (Toronto). A German born player, Manuela Hebel also was selected, however she has played in North America for a bit. Gizela Blom, the final pick of the draft is another Swedish born pick.
Having a draft, even one that only included 3 teams was a large building block in developing the league into a full fledged league. With more than 20 current & past Olympians scattered around the 5 teams, this league has the best hope for women's hockey right now. If they can ever work out an agreement to merge with the WWHL (another 5 team league located in Western Canada & Minnesota), the start for a large league, with 2 U.S. situated teams can develop.
If the league prospers, having an annual draft will certainly be seen a notable building block down the road. People may look back at that first draft in 2010 as the start of a great ride. It gives women's players a goal now, a place to aim for. no longer is College & a possible Olympic spot the only hopes. Being drafted into a league, and winning a league championship against the best players in your sport is now a real option.
8TH DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN- FUTURE NORRIS TROPHY WINNER?
No, this is not a joke. Dustin Byfuglien, the super pest power forward for the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhaws might win a Norris Trophy for leagues best...defenseman??
Originally a defenseman when drafted, Byfuglien has played Right Wing for the past few seasons with the Blackhawks. A role he did so well, he was considered 1 of the most instrumental pieces on the Hawks 2010 Stanley Cup Championship winning team. However, the era of the salary cap would actually take his career in a different direction, one he was formerly familiar with.
The Hawks, strapped for salary cap room, traded Byfuglien to the Atlanta Thrashers this past off season. With limited offense at the teams disposal, it was expected Buffy would slip in to the teams top 2 forward lines with ease. However, the Thrashers head coach, Craig Ramsay saw a different plan for the 6'5 265 lb Minnesotan. Ramsay, a former Selke winner for best defensive forward thought the defenseman turned elite power forward would be best as a defenseman for his offensively challenged team.
The experiment has been a raging success. Not only do the Thrashers have themselves a top end defenseman now, but even in the more limiting offensive position, Buffy has flourished perhaps even more than if he was a forward. Currently Dustin finds himself tied for 11th in league scoring & tied for 2nd in game winning goals, which is good enough for 1st in defenseman goals, Game winning goals & scoring.
The often dismissed Thrashers, a team who has missed the playoffs every year but once in their short history, find themselves 6th in the conference, only 2 pts out of the division lead, and 9 pts clear of the top non-playoff team. All this, despite not having a single player with more than 24 goals last season on the roster, and only 2 with a 30 goal seasons in their career (neither of which had 20 last season).
Although all of the success cant be given to Byfuglien, his pressence on the point has certainly elevated the play of the team around him & because of this, many are taking him seriously as a Norris Trophy winner, let alone contender. With more than 1/2 a season to go, the jury is still out some on whether Byfuglien will take a Norris, but the early indications, he has as good a chance as anyone else right now.
7TH WINDSOR SPITFIRES- BACK 2 BACK MEMORIAL CUP CHAMPIONS
The Windsor Spitfires became back to back Memorial Cup Champions, after beating the Brandon Wheat Kings 9-1 in the final.
It was only 3 seasons ago that the Windsor Spitfires club faces some of its most trying days. The team lost their captain Mickey Renaud to an undetected heart issue late in the OHL season. At the time, the team seemed lost without their leader, and although future NHLers like Michael Neuvirth, Josh Bailey & Taylor Hall gave the team hope, they would fall in the first round without their leader.
In the 2008-09 season, the Spitfires came back & had a mission, to win for Mickey. This team was a much stronger team than the year prior. It had 4 current or future 1st round picks (Hall, Ryan Ellis, Greg Nemisz, Austin Watson) & 12 other NHL draftees on the roster. They went on to win the Memorial Cup that year on an OT goal by Adam Henrique.
In 2009-10, expectations were high for the club, as many of the pieces that got them the teams 1st ever Memorial Cup, were back.
With the loss of 1 1st rounder (Watson) the Spitfires loaded up even more, by adding the likes of 1st rounder Cam Fowler & Zack Kassian to the mix, along with 2 more NHL draft pick to fill in the hole of a couple of the departees.
The club did not disappoint. Finishing 1st in their conference. When the playoffs started, the Spitfires seemed sure of themselves. After a sweep in the first round of the Erie Otters & a 2nd round sweep of the Plymouth Whalers, their confidence seemed warranted. In round 3 however, the Spitfires would open up to a 3-0 series deficit to the Kitchener Rangers. However, they would come back, becoming only the 3rd team in OHL history to win a series after being down 3-0. With that temprary scare firmly implanted in them, they made no more mistakes the rest of the way. Dispensing of the OHL regular season champion, Barrie Colts in 4 straight games, the Spitfires were headed back to the Memorial Cup tournament.
At the Memorial Cup tournament, the lesson of the Rangers series must still have been there, because they didnt take anyone for granted. In game 1 they drubbed the tournament host Brandon WheatKings 9-3. The next game, against the WHL champions from Calgary, they ran over the Hitment 6-2. With 2 wins already under their belt, they knew they would be guaranteed a spot in the Memorial Cup Finals. They didnt need a win against the Quebec league champion Moncton Wildcats, but they did anyways, with a 4-3 overtime win. Giving them the chance to win the Memorial Cup in a little different fashion than the year prior, where they became the first team to win the Cup after losing their first two games, this time, they had the chance to go indefeated.
In the final, the got the Brandon Wheat Kings, the team they pummeled 9-3 earlier in the tourney. The Spitfires didnt want to leave anything to chance. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. It was 3-0 before the Wheaties got their only goal from Columbus Blue Jackets draftee Matt Calvert. That was the end of the fight for the WheatKings though, as Windosr would pile on SIX more goals, for a dominating 9-1 Memorial Cup Finals win. It gave the Spitfires the most goals in a finals game & most lopsided victory distinctions since the 1973 Toronto Marlboros won by the same 9-1 score. Future Edmonton Oilers 1st overall pick Taylor Hall would win the tournament MVP for his 2nd time, making him the first ever player to do so.
The 2011 season will see the Spitfires start to rebuild. Besides losing Hall to the Oilers, their head coach Bob Boughner left for an NHL assistant coaching job, Cam Fowler has landed in Anaheim, and several other notable pieces have moved up to the minor pro leagues. But with the likes of Kassian & Ellis still on the team, they are not completely void of talent. Add in talented future star Russian rookie Alexander Khokhlachev, German NHL draft pick Tom Kuehnhackl, and Maple Leafs 2nd round pick Kenny Ryan getting a larger role, and their rebuilding stage is still pretty good. Add in NHL 1st round pick Jack Campbell, who opted to play in the OHL this year to the mix, and things look quite decent for the defending 2 time Memorial Cup Champions.
6TH ILYA KOVALCHUK SOAP OPERA
Looking back on how things ended, Los Angeles Kings fans are rejoicing & New Jersey Devils fans are on a constant suicide watch.
This past summer, arguably the largest fish to catch in unrestricted free agency was Ilya Kovalchuk. The Rocket Richard trophy winner in 2004, who in his 8 NHL seasons has passed 40 goals in a season 6 times.
While several teams showed interest, only 2 teams seemed to rise to the top as the serious contenders in the end. The Los Angeles Kings, desperate to get a marquee name to put on their team, and the New Jersey Devils, the team Kovalchuk played for last season.
Anyone following it on sports talk shows, the news or twitter, almost daily was hearing something different, and most of those things as it turned out...were wrong. Kovie seemed destined for the Kings in early rumours, and even on more than 1 occasion tweets & comments in the media suggested he was going to be signed imminently by the Kings. As it turned out, for the Kings sake, this was not true in the end.
The New Jersey Devils would sign the sniper....twice. Their first deal, an insane 102 Million dollar deal over 17 years (YES, 17 years) was denied by the league on the grounds that it was a clear attempt to circumvent the NHL Salary Cap, which is based on the average salary of the contract, NOT the individual season amount. The Devils had front loaded the deal, and added in 7 years at the end of the deal where they would pay Ilya the league minimum, which would bring down the average price down substantially. The league denied the outrageous deal, and in doing so, said they would investigate several other recent long term deals including the likes of Hawks star Marian Hossa and the Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
The Devils would re-work the deal and get the leagues approval on a 15 year, 100 million dollar deal (YES, 15 years). The Devils had finally got the man they coveted to keep. The saga was over, and the Devils, a team constantly in the mix as Cup contenders, could focus on that task.
As it turns out, so far, this deal has been a near nightmare for the Devils. Because of the Salary Cap, the Devils have had to adjust constantly their team to balance the cap issues that Kovalchuk's mosterous deal brings. On more than 1 occasion, the team has even iced an incomplete roster because they financially had to. Kovalchuk himself has been a near disaster, with only 8 goals, and 18 points in 33 games, and a team worst -25... make that a LEAGUE worst -25.
The Devils are the worst team in the league currently, with a 9-23-2 record. They are so brutal offensively, that they could win their next game with 11 goals, and still have the least goals in the league. Kovalchuk doesnt even lead his team in goals or points & is tied for 142 in league scoring, a spot that would barely keep him in the top 10 in rookie scoring.
Well, the 2009-10 Vancouver Canucks season is over. Frankly, it was not that large of a shock to me, but still stings anyways. We were playing a team that had equal or stronger talent up front, far superior defense & had a goalie who had better stats than Luongo in most categories. Yet still, there is that feeling this team should have done better.
A lot of the Canucks sudden ending came at the hands of some of its most reliable players thru the regular season. Guys like Kesler, Demitra, Burrows, Raymond and Ehrhoff who were stable & even at times exceeding their expectations pretty much vanished come playoff time. A parade to the penalty box did not help their cause much either. But the non-efforts of some of their biggest players was more concerning to me.
I think a lot can be said of a teams effort when guys like Kyle Wellwood, Jannik Hansen & Shane O'Brien might have put up the best efforts on the team in the game that mattered the most, the final one. No desperation or "we MUST show up now" effort seemed to ever show up in guys like Kesler, Raymond or others.
The same "we can overcome anything" mentality the Canucks had used all season in their late game come from behind victories, the same mentality they even displayed against the Kings a round earlier was non-existant in the Hawks series. Chicago outscored the nucks 11-3 in the 3rd period of this series, they beat them all three times in GM Place, where the Canucks had a 30-8-3 record this season. The Chicago Blackhawks schooled the Canucks in the building they had schooled so many teams this year, the way they had schooled so many teams this year.
Over the next few days, a variety of excuses will come to the surface for sure. "This player was playing with this injury" will be common. but lets face it, does anyone for a second doubt the Hawks players are not also banged up & playing thru adversity? Seriously? With the exception of Sami Salo, who truthfully probably shouldnt have played in the last game, but kudos to him for doing it, no one on the team really has a severe enough injury that they can say that was the reason for the sudden drop off in productivity. Aches & pains are expected in a playoff fight. If it was TOO serious, they wouldnt have been able to play thru it as is. So, an injury really is a thin excuse, not a reason, for a drop off in productivity. Yet fans will eat it up when it comes out that this player & that player were fighting thru a really irritating flea bite or a *GASP* an itchy beard. But seriously, things like shoulder, knee & back injuries in the playoffs are going to be suggested. So, either the Canucks palyers are less able to fight thru adversity, or the entire Hawks franchise were playing in Iron Man suits.
The blame of this season ending on the same day as it did the year before does not solely fall on the players shoulders though. Coach Alain Vigneault (aka- the 2nd best coach in the series) without question shoulders some of the blame. His irrational coaching decisions thru the series were without question as much of the problem as the players wearing the jerseys.
AV took Mikael Samuelsson, who was still producing with the twins, off the Sedin line. Replacing him was offensively invisible (and a major reason for the Canucks game 3 loss after a penalty of idiotic levels which caused the 3rd goal) Alex Burrows. He seemingly rewarded one of the teams least effective stars with a promotion to the top line. This was after Burrows caused the team to not only lose a great scoring opportunity off an icing call with the Sedin line coming out against a tired Hawks line by taking a penalty, but was also at a time that the player in question had ONE playoff goal (not including an irrelevant empty netter against the Kings) in his last 15 playoff games. This is compounded when you realize that till the 3rd period of Game 6, Burrows was more or less the Sedins linemate. For the record, he scored ZERO goals with that promotion (not including an irrelevant empty netter). Burrows has 1 playoff goal (not including 2 empty netters) in 18 consecutive playoff games, got promoted to the top line, where Samuelsson was still producing...BY ALAIN VIGNEAULT!!
The same coaching decisions were evident in round 1 when Andrew Alberts (granted he settled down later in the playoffs) was possibly the worst player on all 16 teams in the playoffs at the time, kept getting chance after chance despite continually blowing it. Odd part was that double A had shown no signs during his short regular season time here to believe he warranted multiple chances. The same Vigneault demoted the teams top goal scorer to the 3rd line after he had slight slump where he only scored 1 goal in 2 1/3 games. Top goal scorer in the playoffs, demoted 2 lines for a slump that even Conn Smythe trophy winners are bound to go thru during a playoffs. Pathetic.
Then comes Vigneaults decisions between the pipes. Roberto Luongo is an elite goalie, no question....when hes on. When he isnt on, its scary though. He clearly was not "on" at home, yet AV kept going back to him & in fact, he went to back-up Andrew Raycroft only once in the entire playoffs, and that was back against the Kings. Luongo gave up 21 goals in 6 games. A goals against average of 3.52 and a save percentage of .862 from the starting goalie in the 2nd round series, and you never once go to your back up?? How about his 5.35 GAVE at home in round 2? Shouldnt that warrant a look at the back up? A back up that in the regular season had a better GAVE & only slightly less SPCT than your 7 million dollar starter?
When did AV turn into Marc Crawford? When did Vigneault quit being a coach, and start being players "buddies"? He played the playoffs like he was trying to win friends with some of the players. Burrows, Alberts, Luongo, Bieksa, Kesler and Raymond were all given ample chances to "step up" & all of them kept wasting their chances for the most part. Yet players who did produce, who were showing up, kept getting the short end of the straw. Mikael Samuelsson told Team Sweden to go fuck themselves earlier this year after getting left off the Swedish Olympic team. What could he have to say about a coach that demoted him 2 lines for essentially having 1 off game or so in the face of all these other non-performers getting handed chance after chance??
AV can perhaps explain why in a do or die game that you are only down a goal or two, your top line is not being double shifted?
- The Sedins had ice times of 18:51 and 18:40 each in the final game.
- Burrows (he of the ONE non-empty net playoff goal in the last 18 games) 19:37??
- Kesler (he of 0 G in the last 7 playoff games & 1 this post-season all together) 18:42??? Wellwood 18:52
- Samuelsson (teams leading goal & points scorer in the playoffs) 16:10.
- Raymond (0 goals, 0 points, -3 +/- in last 4 games) 16:47 played more than the teams best contributor offensively.
The top 3 lines were grossly mismanaged in the final game perhaps more than any other time in the playoffs.
Coach Vigneault one night suggested that Luongo was the 2nd best goalie on the ice that night. He wasnt wrong. He was the 2nd best goalie that night. However, no one once made note of the fact that this comment came from the 2nd best coach in the series. Alain Vigmeault was grossly outcoached by Joel Quenneville and to be brutally honest, maybe a tire iron could have outcoached him.
If the blame is to be broken down into a percentage basis. I would have to split it up like this.
Bieksa & Ehrhoff 5%
Rest of the forwards 5%
Rest of the defense 5%
Sure some of that blame seems unfair. I mean the defense core was eating up minutes they werent really qualified to take on at times with the various injuries. But still, the fact is they had jobs to do & at times werent able to do it.
This team didnt win because of several performances on the ice, and one performance behind the bench.
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.
At 5th in the IIHF rankings the U.S. team the 2010 Olympics will see, is coming in with hopes of a medal. The hopes for any medal contention will fall solely on the shoulders of Ryan Miller. Tim Thomas might be the Vezina trophy winner, but Miller is far & away the better goalie. The battle for number 3 is one that I wont be surprised if I get wrong. Its in my opinion a 4 horse race. Early in the season Craig Anderson looked like a lock. Lately Jonathan Quick seems like the odds on favorite, but few have considered Ty Conklin & Jim Howard, both who have had exceptional seasons as well. Theres even the small (although highly unlikely) potential of Robert Esche, one of the top goalies in the KHL this season being on their radar, but I think he will be snubbed for a North American playing goalie.
The team on defense is young, but not as young as it would have been had Tyler Myers been eligible to play for it. The 18 yr old stud defenseman, American born, opted to play for Canada in the junior championships & thus is not eligible for the U.S. team.
Forwards are a good mix of young, old, speedy & skilled. With young studs like Parise, Stastny, Kane & Ryan, they wont have to worry about scoring. Guys like Kesler, Rolston & Langebrunner will be able to play solid defensive games and contribute a bit offensively.
Overall, the U.S. squad is one of the more rounded ones they have had in awhile. Chances for a medal are decent.
Ryan Miller- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL) The undisputed best goalie in the U.S. right now. Leads in GGA, SPCT, SO & 1 win out of 1st in wins. He is the starter without hesitation.
Tim Thomas- BOSTON BRUINS (NHL) Solely based on his performance last season Tim will be here as the back up. Realistically, hes had an average season & there is likely more deserving players, but a Norris trophy winner last year gets him a partial pass on an average season so far.
Jim Howard- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) I am picking him solely because in the last few weeks hes had amazing stats, hes been a starter now & hes managed to climb from the bottom of my prospective goalies list to almost the top in a matter of weeks. Best of the bunch over the past while & has been the backbone of a resurgence of the Wings lately. This is by far a lock though, especially if Burkie had his choices made prior to the start of December for his goalies.
Erik Johnson- ST LOUIS BLUES (NHL) The probable 1st unit PP QB for USA, Erik will be a probable top pair starter.
Alex Goligoski- PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (NHL) Although hes cooled off a touch this last couple weeks, he is still having a sound defensive game as well & clearly has an offensive flair as well which makes his capable in all situations.
Matt Carle- PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (NHL) Maybe its Chris Pronger who has had something to do with it, but Matt Carle is set to possibly have the best season of his short career already.
Ryan Suter- NASHVILLE PREDATORS (NHL) The Preds are climbing the standings right now & you can put a large chunk of that on their defense core, including Suter. With 7 pts & a +8 in their last 8 games, he has cemented what was already a probable spot before then.
Ryan Whitney- ANAHEIM DUCKS (NHL) His strong offensive game will be his ticket onto the team. If they dont feel the need for his offense, he might not be here though. Defensively there are better options.
Andy Greene- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) Who had Andy Greene even on their short list at the start of the year? Probably no one, including me. But injuries in NJ (including Paul Martin who might replace him depending on his return status) has seen Greenes stock rise dramatically & right now, I would have to question leaving a dman with 3 GWG & 4 PP goals off your roster. That +8 rating likely doesnt hurt his chances either.
Brian Rafalski- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) One of the most experienced dmen the U.S. has. Brian will be here not just on his past championship & major international tourney experience, but on the fact hes had a decent year again at both ends of the ice.
Zach Parise- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) The top goals, assists & points scorer for the U.S. last year, Zach has returned to that same form this year, leading the American offensive charge again. He will be expected to carry the load offensively.
Paul Stastny- COLORADO AVALANCHE (NHL) The Avs are fighting for a division title early in this season, and much of that is because of Paul Stastny & his offensive contributions. USA will hope for the same contributions in Vancouver.
Patrick Kane- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) His off season issues have not seemed to have damaged his game much. Patrick is again having a solid year offensively. A pt per game pace & a likely top line spot & lots of PP time will make him dangerous.
Ryan Kesler- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) A Selke trophy finalist last season, Ryan has perhaps even improved on that performance this season. Offensively he has picked his game up a notch, maybe even two.
Jamie Langenbrunner- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) Has lots of offensive talent, but is also an exceptional defensive minded forward who will probably get lots of time in all situations.
Ryan Malone- TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (NHL) A literal resurgence for Ryan Malone this year has placed him on this team. He is struggling a bit lately, but his early season efforts have him safely on the team. The American staff is just hoping he gets that touch back by February.
Bobby Ryan- ANAHEIM DUCKS (NHL) If this tourney was a year later I think he would be on the top line. Since its now however, he'll do quite fine as their 2nd unit winger.
Phil Kessel- TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (NHL) The Leafs have come on strong since Kessel returned from an injury. His pt per game avg has him on the team, even if the National teams GM didnt have a club team connection to him in Toronto.
Tim Connolly- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL) Will fill a 3rd line scoring role. Could be moved to a 2nd line spot if others falter.
RJ Umberger- COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (NHL) Long as he can get along with sure thing Ryan Kesler, RJ Umberger should do well in a checking role & still bring offensive skills to the position.
Dustin Brown- LOS ANGELES KINGS (NHL) A good offensive player, it will be a defensive role the American staff will probably put on him here though. Expect him as a 3rd liner.
Jason Blake- TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (NHL) Playing for the National teams GM will get him on the team. Brian Burke will put Jason here for no other reason but to hopefully give his player a boost of confidence for the rest of the NHL season. He has the stats to justify it as well.
Brian Rolston- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) my first roster at the end of Oct, he wasnt even on my "outside chance" list. Mid Nov list still not on it. Finally at the end of Nov I placed him at the bottom of my "outside chance" list. If I am wrong about him being here I wont be shocked. His surge has been only recently & maybe its too late to get recognized. But his stats & experience make me consider him an option & if he keeps it up thru till decision day, maybe Burkie scratches out whoever he has here & puts him in instead.
maybe- Craig Anderson, Jonathan Quick, Brooks Orpik, Zach Bogosian, Jack Johnson, Keith Tkachuk, Dustin Byfuglien, David Booth, Jason Pominville, Kyle Okposo.
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From time to time I have something to say on hockey. Whether its the Vancouver Canucks, NHL in general, Womens Hockey or International Hockey...if I have something to post, it will be in here.