When the 2009-10 NHL season started, I can say with fair confidence, 1 of the teams in the finals was NOT on my radar. The Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Chicago Blackhawks were my strongest consideration for my Western Conference finalist, the Flyers to me were nothing more than a playoff spot filler. To me, the East ran thru Washington or Pittsburgh. With outside chances to Buffalo, Montreal and Boston.
That is all you really need to know of the Philadelphia Flyers right there. They have proven a lot of people wrong. Including me... 4 times now this season.
They made the playoffs on the last chance they could this season. They got in with a shootout win to eek into a playoff spot that I boldly told my friends in March there was no way they could win. Down the stretch this team, which seemed destined to a solid top 5 or 6 placing in the conference just weeks earlier, had plummeted & on some days, was out of the playoff race as teams like the New York rangers & Atlanta Thrashers kept poking their head into the final playoff spot momentarily. Yet, in the final week they fought back & dragged themselves to a do or die, winner take all affair with the NY Rangers on the very final day of the season. To the loser, a long frustrating off season of what could have been. To the winners, a date with the Atlantic division champs, New Jersey Devils. Hardly a great reward for such a triumph. The Flyers & Rangers played to a shootout. With Claude Giroux scoring on the 3rd shooter for Philly, it was up to unlikely hero Brian Boucher, an after thought to most analysts this season, and probably even that week, to make 1 more save. With the Rangers picking top end scorer Olli Jokinen, the challenge was going to be big. But Boucher did it & the Flyers would be moving on to the playoffs, proving me wrong once.
Playing against the Devils, after narrowly making it. I was confident the Flyers season would end here. They had to have emptied their gas tanks to get here. But the Flyers found a way to not just get by the Devils, they handled them quickly in 5 games. If anything, it seemed Martin Brodeur, and the Devils forwards were the ones who had run the gas tank to empty in the regular season. For a 2nd time, the Flyers proved me wrong.
In round 2 they got the Boston Bruins, a team I was less sure of, but still liked their chances over the Flyers. Where the Devils seemed to be struggling down the stretch behind the suddenly average goaltending of Martin Brodeur, the Bruins had young stud Tuukka Rask in net & he wasnt faltering. The Bruins rushed out to a 3 games ot 0 lead over the hapless Flyers. This series was over. So much for the cinderella Flyers. Then it happened. Something changed. The Flyers came into game 4 with a "we have nothing to lose" attitude, and guess what?? they didnt lose. With an OT winner from Simon Gagne, the Philadelphia Flyers moved from clinically dead, to on life support. But it was impossible to believe they were going to become the 3rd team in NHL history to return from a 3-0 deficit, right??? Game 5, they won as well, 4-0. In that game, their band aid solution starting goalie Brian Boucher (who took the role as #1 when Ray Emery went down 1/2 way thru the yr with a season ending injury) himself went down with an injury, meaning barely known Michael Leighton was thrust into the spotlight. From there on, it was the Leighton show. He would backstop games 6 &7 wins & the Philadelphia Flyers would make the Eastern Conference finals somehow. Proving me wrong for a 3rd time.
In the Eastern Conference Finals they faced another cinderella team, the Montreal Canadiens. While Michael Leighton was becoming a notable name in Philly, and really in tune hockey experts, the Habs had their own goalie of the moment backstopping them. Slovakian Olympian, Jaroslav Halak. With championship knowledge in his resume (he was on the Hamilton Bulldogs Calder Cup championship team a few yrs ago) & already having carried 1 underdog team to near greatness this year (Slovakia finished 4th at the Olympics, despite being on few if anyones radar going into the tourney, as a medal contender)Although the Flyers came in as the statistical "favorites", most people seemed to give Montreal the edge, myself included. With the exception of the game 3 in the series, the first game in Montreal, the Habs seemed dead in the water. Their gas tanks emptied like the Devils in round 1 & the Bruins in the last 1/2 of their series, and the Flyers just ran them over, finishing the series off in 5 games. Proving me wrong for a 4th time.
So here we find the Philadelphia Flyers, a team who driving down the stretch of the playoffs race lost 9 of 11 games thru March & early April, in the Stanley Cup Finals. More amazing is, with the exception of the 3-0 Bruins series lead, this team has won 12 of 14 games to get to this spot. Now, the Flyers face a team from the West that was expected to possibly be in this position, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Once again, goaltending for the visitor is expected to be strong. The Devils had Brodeur, the Bruins had Rask, the Habs had Halak. All have fallen to this sudden power house team. Will the Haws Antti Niemi falter too?
The Flyers are getting great performances from their top guys. The team is offensively being lead by Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne & Chris Pronger. The guys you expect to lead, are. With the addition of Jeff Carter, this looks more like a cup contending team than the 1 that limped into the post-season without Gagne or Carter. The Flyers have been getting good support offense from defenders Kimmo Timonen & Matt Carle, as well as forwards Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell. Tough as nails checking specialist Ian Laperriere is back in the fold, giving other hard nosed players like Dan Carcillo and Arron Asham some back up on the defensive side of the forward unit.
This team really should be proud of everything they accomplish, wiin or lose. This is a team who realistically wasnt on many experts radar for a Cup berth, and certainly werent expected after losing notable names like Gagne, Carter, Emery & Boucher thru the journey. Yet somehow, they are here. They SHOULD be proud, regardless of the outcome. But you look down that roster, with guys like Pronger, Laperriere, Richards and Carter & you realize that this team is full of guys who wont be happy losing. This team will fight right to the bitter end, even if they are down 10-0 in game 4 of a series they are already down 3 games to 0 in. Winning the Prince of Wales Trophy isnt even a consolation prize to this group. With the higly competitive league the NHL has created, where teams rarely have chances to develop a dynasty, this very well could be the 1 and only shot for many of these guys. They wont want to waste it.
I dont think the Philadelphia Flyers will win. I think Chicago is the better team and they want this just as badly. I am picking Chicago in 6 games. But if the Flyers do win, after all they have done this year in proving me wrong...it shouldnt shock anyone, most of all...me.
Its almost June & only 2 teams are left playing in the NHL. The Philadephia Flyers, a team few people expected to still be playing, and the Chicago Blackhawks, a team many people, myself included expected to possibly be playing still.
When this season started, the Chicago Blackhawks (even though I didnt like admitting it, still fresh off the sting of them beating us in the playoffs the year before, I was still a bit bitter) were my team to win the West....of course, it wasnt a resound vote of confidence. I did have my fingers dipped in several bowls, including the Calgary Flames (before they tried to build a team out of 3rd & 4th liners).
It came as little shock to anyone that the Blackhawks finished tops in their division & 2nd in the Western Conference this year. A lot of people expected the Hawks to take over the reigns from the long time Central Division champs, Detroit Red Wings.
I had the team getting this far possibly...I just didnt know who the goalie was that was going to get them here. Upstart Finnish goalie Antti Niemi has stolen the job from the greatest goaltender ever from France, Cristobal Huet. That is saying a lot for Niemi. Afterall Huet stole the job from superstar Nikolai Khabibulin & subsequently was responsible for the former Cup champion being run out of town. Now Niemi might do the same to Huet.
Round 1, the Hawks had a date with the Nashville Predators. I never took the Preds serious all year long, and in the playoffs that didnt change. I expected the Hawks to dispense of them quickly, so you could imagine my surprise when the boys from the Windy City were down 2 games to 1 from a place that thinks when someone says "puck" it must be someone with a speech impediment swearing at you. But eventually calm was restored & the Chicago Blackhawks got out of round 1 4 games to 2.
For their next match up, they were going to try & recreate history. The Vancouver Canucks, the Hawks 2nd round opponents of a year ago were back looking for revenge. With an Art Ross winner & improved scoring all around, the Canucks were seemingly silenced offensively by the defensive pairings of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as well as Nik Hjarmalsson and Brian Campbell. The offense that was so explosive for the Canucks seemed missing, while the Hawks wasnt. Jonathan Toews stepped up in the series & started an offensive streak that is still in tact at this point. Dustin Byfuglien & Dave Bolland seemed too much for the thin & undermanned Canucks defense to handle. While offensively Patrick Sharp & Pat Kane did what was expected of them. The rematch ended the same way, on the same date a year later. Chicago Blackhawks win 4 games to 2
While the Hawks were running thru the west, another team San Jose Sharks were doing something most people didnt expect...they were also winning. With wins over the Colorado Avalanche after being down in the series, and a more shocking win over the surging Detroit Red Wings, who were starting to look like the Wings of old in the weeks prior, the Sharks seemed a formidable opponent for the strong Hawks team. The Sharks, known for being a great regular season squad, but always faltering come playoffs saved their predictable collapse for the Conference finals this time. The #1 team in the West in the regular season was beat down by the bigger and faster Hawks squad. While playoff choke artist poster child Joe Thornton was scrounging up 1 measely point in the 4 games, Jonathan Toews was busy getting 6 pts in that same time span, including game 2 GWG & assisting on 2 other GWGs. All the same suspects from the Canucks series were responsible in gutting the Sharks. Byfuglien, Bolland, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook & Keith did much of the damage. With the exception of Patrick Marleau & Dan Boyle, the Sharks were dead in the water from the word go of this series. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the top seeded Western team 4 games to 0 in the Western Conference Finals and took home the Campbell Bowl. With a sweep in the books, the Hawks started to set their sights on their ultimate goal...the Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks are where many thought they would be. In the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe just not against who lost thought they would be there against. They will face a foe that was 24 points behind them in the standings. A team that would have finished 11th in their conference. But the Hawks wont take them for granted I suspect. Afterall, the only meeting these two teams had this year, the Hawks lost, and not all that long ago, back on Mar 13th.
Chicago will hope for youngster Antti Niemi to hold up the incredible performance he has put in for just 1 more round, while hoping out of the blue wonder Michael Leighton doesnt do the same on his end for the flyers.
With Jonathan Toews running amuck, already tallying 26 pts, it really seems they dont need anyone else to get the job done. But others are getting the job done. Patrick Kane has quietly put together 20 pts, while Patrick Sharp has been alright too. Even Marian Hossa, who many have seen as unproductive these playoffs, still has 11 pts himself. Then theres the big Bs. Byfuglien & Bolland. Duncan Keith was slow starting offensively these playoffs, but is now up to 10 pts. Brent Seabrook, Nik Hjarmalsson, Brent Sopel & Brian Campbell have done a decent job at adding some offensive jump to an already strong line up from the back end. As long as John Madden & his rotating group of checkers keeps doing their job, the lethal Philly offense shouldnt have too much luck against Niemi.
Coach Joel Quenneville will expect victory from his players. A Campbell Bowl isnt enough to quench the thirst these guys have right now. They have recent Olympic Champions who know how victory tastes. They have other recent Olympians, liek patrick Kane looking to get the bitter taste out of his mouth of a near victory. he doesnt want to go thru that again I assure you. While its clear Toews, Kane, Keith, Byfuglien, Sharp, Seabrook and Niemi want this championship badly. So do the rest. Ben Eager and Troy Brouwer are just as hungry. They know this moight be the closest they ever get & there is no waiting for the next chance. Marian Hossa is at the finals for a 3rd consecutive year, with his 3rd different team. He is 0-2 so far, he certainly doesnt want to go thru the pain of losing in the finals again.
I believe Chicago Blackhawks will win this series. The Flyers might have proven me wrong 4 times already this year, but at the same time, the Hawks have proven me right just as often.
As much as the city of Philadelphia might want this after the long wait they have had. Chicago is even hungrier. Philly hasnt been a champ since 1975, Chicago 1961. The Hawks fans have had to suffer thru the horrid ownership of Bill Wirtz, a man who probably would have played the games without electricity in teh stadium if it were leglally allowed. This franchise has had no chance to be a serious competitor too often in the past couple decades. Missing the playoffs 9 of the past 11 seasons prior to now, the Hawks have suffered longer then Flyerrs fans. Two generaltions of Hawks fans havent seen a Cup hoisted, while only 1 generation of Flyers fans havent seen it happen. The Hawks have had only 3 other Cup appearances since the last win in 61. The Flyers in comparison have only missed the playoffs 6 times TOTAL since winning the Cup & have been to the Finals 5 other times since their last Cup win. Everything about this series suggests Hawks fans have suffered longer, and deserve this more.
Whoever wins the 2010 Stanley Cup will have ended some long suffering for its fans & will have prolonged the other fans suffering a little longer. For what its worth, I think it will be the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks who will have the celebratory party, and I suspect it will be after game 6.
While many, and with good reason, have written Tyler Myers and Matt Duchene in on the Calder ballot already with a couple weeks of hockey still to play, the 3rd spot is possibly still debated by some.
The majority say John Tavares will get it. Some believe recently traded Atlanta Thrashers stud Niklas Bergfors can steal that spot. But the one that few are talking about, and I think is not only a serious contender, but also, a serious contender to win it, is Jim Howard.
Howard, the Detroit Red Wings barely 26 year old (aka- Calder eligible) starting goalie was on no ones radar at the start of the year, mainly because he was the undisputed back up in Detroit to long time veteran and past Stanley Cup winning goaltender Chris Osgood. But as Ozzie faultered early on, Howard stepped in and was a solid 2nd option. Since the Olympic break Howard has been the undisputed #1 in Detroit, going 12-2-1 in that time. In fact, since the start of the calendar year, Osgood only has 2 decisions (0-2-0), while Howard is 20-7-7 in that same timespan. it took till December, 3 months into the season for the Wings to realize who the real #1 was in their organization. If it took THEM that long, you can understand why sports writers and fans alike are still overlooking statistically, the 2nd or 3rd best goalie in hockey right now. Here is a guy who should be in Vezina talks by TV analysts & writers, but is barely even getting Calder mentions.
Its easy to see why Howard is overlooked by some. Statistically, he isnt the top rookie goalie....sort of. If it were not for Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask also having a solid year, Howards dominance might seem more impressive for a rookie. But with Rask (who would also be a contender, if not for the fact he only has 40 GP) having a better GAVE & SPCT on the season, Howards 2.27 GAVE & .926 SPCT (both in the top 5 in the NHL) doesnt seem as spectacular to some. But it really is spectacular, and someone needs to start taking notice.
He is in the top 5 in the two most notable categories for goalie in the entire NHL. He is 10th in Wins, despite starting the year as the back up. He currently is riding a 6 game winning streak, and hasnt lost in regulation time since March 9th, despite playing in every game in that time. With a .918 SPCT, and a 2.23 GAVE in the month of March, for a team fighting for their playoff lives, his play has been nothing short of incredible.
Even while having more wins than Jose Theodore, the starting goalie for the #1 team in hockey, and Cristobal Huet, the #1 goalie for the Blackhawks 3rd in the NHL & topcs in teh Wings division, Howard seems to fly under the radar to everyone. He had far superior stats to Tim Thomas and even Jonathan Quick going into the Olympics, yet didnt get the call from Team USA. The guy just seems to get no respect. Even the Red Wings, who kept riding Osgood early in the season, despite Howard constantly having better stats in the limited games he was getting, overlooked him. I suspect, sports writers will do the same when voting for the Calder too.
There is only 2 goalies with a better GAVE than him who have played more than 40 games. There is only 2 goalies with a better SPCT than him who have played more than 40 games.
If you take out Hart contender, Ryan Miller from the equation, theres only 1 goalie in each of those categories. Miikka Kiprusoff in GAVE, Tomas Vokoun in SPCT. Jim Howard should be considered for the Vezina trophy. Let alone the Calder. But he wont, because the writers dont have a familiarity with him yet that they do with statistically inferior stars like Nabokov, Lundqvist, Bryzgalov, Brodeur or Luongo. All who have "good" stats, but not amazing stats. All who have inferior stats to Howard.
When you consider that Matt Duchene, the NHL rookie scoring leader has only 53 pts & 23 goals on the season. Stats that put him 62nd in points, and 50th in Goals amongst forwards, is a lock on the Calder ballots, Howard should be too. Howard is more dominant in his position than Duchene has been at his. More of a case can be made for Tyler Myers than Duchene. He is afterall in the top 10 in defenseman points, goals and top 20 in +/-. But he still, statistically is not dominating his position as much as Howard is his.
Against the 9 teams statistically ahead of the Wings currently in the league, Howard has 13-2-4 record. He has 13 wins against the top 9 teams in the league. He has beat all of them but 2, Washington and New Jersey. He also didnt get the chance to face Washington or NJ. So he has beaten all the teams above the Wings currently that he has had the chance to face. Probably not going to be a Vezina finalist, and possibly not even a Calder finalist. HOW??
There is a realistic chance Jim Howard wont be a finalist for the Calder, let alone the winner when the awards are handed out in Las Vegas in June. The NHL poster child for this years rookie crop, and NEW YORK team based kid wonder John Tavares will probably be hand picked by the NHL to be the other finalist just because. All that Howard has achieved this year will be ignored by the NHL writers most likely, and if its not, the NHL likely will ignore it anyways.
Jim Howard should be a Vezina finalist, and the Calder winner. At the end of the day, he most likely wont even be a finalist for either award. Whether the NHL writers or the NHL itself is to blame for this remains to be seen.
I cant believe how in love the Flames fans seem to be with Dion Phaneuf.
They are acting like Bobby Orr got traded for Martin Kariya.
Sure Phaneuf is a tough as nails hard hitter that CAN change the momentum of a game. But that skillset isnt enough to pass up the chance to make your team better now. Especialyl when your team was in dire need of an offensive boost.
The Flames pick up offensive depth with Matt Stajan & Niklas Hagman that they desperately needed. They get some offensive depth. Instead of being a 1 line team with 1 or 2 other mid level scoring options, they now have 2, maybe even 3 capable lines with 1 trade.
They get rid of a terribly underachieving Fredrik Sjostrom in the deal (although they were forced to take Jamal Mayers to offset that..so essentially that part of the trade is a wash).
The Flames pick up Ian White. In White, the Flames get a very capable power play quarterback who will fill the absense of Phaneuf relatively fine in that regard. He managed to be a +1 in Toronto this year, so he obviously is doing something well defensively. as well. Where the Flames lose on this swap White for Phaneuf straight up, is size. Phaneuf is 5 inches taller and 30 lbs heavier. But grit & toughness is the one thing this defense had an abundance of with Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich & Adam Pardy. They needed a puck moving skater. White brings that to them. Sure, Toronto gets the flashier name out of the defenseman swap, and probably even the more talented one. But Ian White is no slouch & if Phaneuf doesnt progress much more, this part of the trade isnt too lopsided at all.
This brings us to the rest of the package, Keith Aulie is a young defensman prospect that I am sure the Flames were not keen on moving, but to get as many bodies as they got, they had to dangle something else with Phaneuf. Maybe in 2-3 years, this will be a mistake. But in a "now" driven league, the Flames needed help NOW. Keith Aulie was sacrificed for the greater good of improving now.
The rest of this trade breaks down Aulie for Stajan & Hagman (I dont count Sjostrom or Mayers in this. They were both throw aways). The future of Aulie is still uncertain. He COULD pan out to be a top 4 dman, or could be a career AHL journeyman. Its unknown. For the Flames, they needed scoring help NOW & Hagman with 20 goals and Stajan with 16, gives them that. They just landed a pair of guys who currently have 74 combined points, for a prospect that wouldnt be utilized by Calgary till Kipper & Iggy are past their primes.
Calgary now can roll 3 competent lines (in theory)
This takes pressure off of Daymond Langkow to be a #2 centre which he doesnt really appear to be anymore. Mikael Backlund, assuming he stays up (he may get sent back to Abbotsford with all the new bodies) can slide into a #2 or 3 line spot where there is less pressure on him to perform miracles right away. Olli Jokinen & Hagman could turn into a deadly duo, if the shoot first Hagman and pass first Jokinen get on the same wavelength, while Stajan brings a mix of puck moving & shooting to the 1st line that was missing at centre with Jokinen and Langkow who are both pre-dominantly passers.
This is a sound trade for them if they are thinking of making a run NOW.
Getting 2 top 6 forwards & a bottom 6 forward for a bottom 6 forward & a prospect you might not use for 2+ yrs is a good decision in the short term. They dont have a lot of years left where Kiprusoff and Iginla will be elite top level talents capable of building a winner on. That time is already starting to slip as it is. They need to make use of these assets while they can, and this year could be their final chance to do that. This trade now gives them a better chance to do that.
For Toronto, this is merely a matter of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Phaneuf isnt going to thrust them into the playoffs, and with the additional loss of Jason Blake to Anaheim today, they threw out 100 points in forwards. For a team that is already offensively challenged, they are quite literally pulling the plug on this season. I hope Phil Kessel is on a suicide watch, because after seeing todays moves he might consider it. He now has even less talent to play with than before. The leafs also did a goalie swap. JS Giguere is an upgrade on Vesa Toskala for sure, but he still cant carry a bad team anywhere on his own. Instead of the Leafs losing 5-3 on any given night, now they'll lose 4-2 instead.
I saw a writer today suggested the T.O. trades is to distract the media from the fact the Leafs are in a tailspin. Its true. The media for 2-4 weeks will have Phaneuf Phever. They will disregard them going 1-5-1 or some abysmal mark like that in that stretch, and by the time they start to notice the team isnt any better, the trade deadline will have passed & there will only be a month and a bit left in the season & Burke can do damage control then, for only 4-6 weeks, instead of 8-10 weeks.
The Anaheim Ducks get a small boost of offense that they may need depending on the status of often injured Teemu Selanne in Jason Blake. But they lose in the goalie swap. Will Blakes 1/6 of a goal (he did once score 40 goals however) a game make up for the 1/2 to 1 full goal a game Toskala will give up? perhaps. Afterall, Toskala is the back up & thus wont be damaging them as often as Blakes offense should help....in theory. Anaheim IMO didnt help themselves much in this deal here, and for a team only 5 pts out of the playoffs, they probably needed to do better in this deal. Blake will certainly get a chance to produce there however. As a natural left winger, something Anaheim doesnt really have right now, he instantly jumps into the 2nd line by default, perhaps maybe even 1st line depending how they see things fitting. If he recaptures some of the scoring touch he saw in Long Island where he scored 40 goals once, perhaps he can finish this year with 20 goals & then the Ducks will be able to validate this trade a bit more. For now however, I think they simply did not get enough for an asset like Giguere.
My final grades on this deal
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.
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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.