Friday, April 18th, 2014

Raymond Kirk: Canucks are California Dreaming and Finding Their Game

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The Vancouver Canucks did many things right in their past two games, at home against the Calgary Flames, and in their first road test of the season last Friday against the Anaheim Ducks. Winning key faceoffs, better puck support, and most important, clutch goaltending from new #1 Cory Schneider, all combined to make a 0-1-1 record forgotten. The Canucks now head into what should be a very interesting two games in two nights starting tonight in San Jose against the red hot Sharks, and a game against the defending Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings on Monday at Staples Centre.

The wins are nice, and oh so important in this compressed 48 game schedule, but tonight begins a true litmus test to see just where these 2013 Canucks are with respect to finding their President’s Trophy form, as they finally face a club that made the playoffs last season, a red-hot team at that. San Jose is off to a perfect 4-0 start, and looking dominant in the process, as Patrick Marleau already has 8 goals to lead all NHL Shooters, and Jumbo Joe Thornton has racked up 9 helpers, as both veteran Shark forwards find themselves tied for the NHL lead with a remarkable 11 points through the first full week of the NHL season. The Canucks, although playing much better in their two wins than they did in their first two losses of the season, will have to be even better tonight if they hope to keep their modest win streak intact.

Against Calgary, the Canucks once again blew a two goal lead and played sloppy hockey, and were fortunate to win the skills-competition shootout, thanks in large part to Schneider finally finding his groove to begin the third period, as his first two looked as shaky as his season opening debacle against Anaheim. Quiet in his crease, and square to the puck, Schneider looked like the goalie that we have seen the last two seasons, making tough stops look routine in large part to his positioning. The Canucks, after the first ten minutes in Anaheim, played their best hockey of the season, and rode hot goaltending with a strong powerplay to a 5-0 decision over those same Ducks that spanked them in their home opener.

This week also marked the emergence of Zack Kassian, goal scorer and new fan favorite, and the debut of the much anticipated Jordan Schroeder era in Vancouver. Kassian won the lottery with consistent effort, and finds himself skating with the Sedins, and will stay there as long as he continues to play big, use his surprising speed and better than expected passing ability. He brings an element to that line that Alex Burrows has not over the years….size. It is also a prime example of players that played during the lockout having an edge over those that did not, as Kassian has shown to be in game form, while Burrows, who definitely played his best game of the season last Friday, is still working to find his full game speed. Schroeder has not looked overwhelmed or out of place through his first two NHL games, as he has not shied away from going to the front of the net, and seems to have good vision and puck awareness. Far from an established NHL regular, I can see where he will be able to consistently fight for an NHL roster spot come next season, when I would expect he would officially take a roster spot away from Manny Malhotra on this team.

mason-raymondThe best story for me, bar none, this young NHL season for the Canucks is the re-emergence of Mason Raymond. Everybody has definitely not loved Raymond the last few seasons in Vancouver, and with cause. He has teased fans with his speed and shot for years on the left coast, but coming off that horrific back injury in the Stanley Cup Final against Boston, many (myself included) thought that his best days were behind him, and I couldn’t wait to see someone new come in and take his spot to fill the void of the 25-30 goals that he should be able to provide for this hockey team. It’s a small sample size, but this Mason Raymond is night and day over the player that skated in that jersey last season. Thanks to a long layoff due to the lockout, and obvious hard work, Raymond has seized the moment once again in Vancouver, and has, to me, edged Kassian as best story and best performer for the Canucks through the first four games. No one on this team is faster, when he’s healthy, and not many have a better shot, when he uses it. Raymond, who seemed scared (for obvious reasons) to drive the net last year, has not shown any yet this year, and has been rewarded for that net presence. The skeptic in me says it won’t last, or that it has shown up as it is a contract year, but Raymond, who took a pay cut to play this year, has a lot to prove and is doing so right now, and I couldn’t be happier for him. If Raymond can play at this level and sustain it, with a level of confidence, I can only imagine just how good a season he could have, once a healthy Kesler is centering his line.

So begins the next two most important games in this young Canucks season. I would imagine with it being back to back nights, that we will see both Schneider and Luongo these next two days. There have been positive signs this week, but the team will need to be even better if it hopes to skate away with a couple more victories in California. The Sharks will be a huge test tonight. If Schneider can keep his game up that he found late against Calgary, the effective youthful exuberance of Kassian and Schroeder can continue, and Raymond keeps playing at the level he has shown to start this campaign, the Canucks can definitely return home with a much better feeling about their game, than when they left for California with question marks surrounding almost every aspect of their game. Your thoughts?

Raymond Kirk
Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

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