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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