Raymond Kirk: Vancouver Canucks / San Jose Sharks Preview

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The 2013 NHL Dress Rehearsal is over, and now it’s time to play for keeps. The Vancouver Canucks will open up the 1st Round of the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, a familiar post season foe, and the most famous Stanchion goal in NHL History as Kevin Bieksa sent Canuck Nation into a frenzy and a Stanley Cup Final appearance just two seasons ago, dispatching the Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Final.

On the final day of the Western Conference NHL season, it was yet to be determined if the Canucks first round match up would be against the San Jose Sharks, LA Kings or St. Louis Blues. While all three teams are formidable opponents, it is my opinion that Vancouver could not have asked for a better draw than San Jose. Not only have they had recent post season success against San Jose, but both clubs mirror each other’s strengths and weaknesses this season.

Without question, the Sharks have what on paper should be a formidable offensive attack, with the likes of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Devon Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat. Their blue line is solid with Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart, and not to mention Brent Burns, who has transformed his game from being a solid Defenceman into a power forward for this Sharks club, chipping in key points for San Jose as the season has moved along. Yet, with all the weapons the Sharks have at their disposal, offensive production has escaped them this year, as they finished 24th in the NHL in scoring.

If not for the Vezina caliber season of goaltender Antti Niemi, the Sharks would find themselves on the outside looking in this post season. Niemi has been fantastic all year long, stealing many much needed points for San Jose allowing this team to play a lower scoring; low risk system that almost played itself into home ice advantage in the first round? Sound familiar, Canucks fans?

The Canucks, on paper, can go toe-to-toe with San Jose offensively. Although Henrik and Daniel Sedin are far from having a career best offensive year, their two-way game is as good as it’s ever been. Having a healthy Ryan Kesler at this time of year is as good as any NHL Trade Deadline acquisition could be, as to me; this series will go as Kesler goes. If he is healthy, he will cause havoc for the Sharks. It is for Wednesday and beyond why GM Mike Gillis went out and got Derek Roy as a deadline rental, as what he can provide offensively for the Canucks from the 3rd line and 2nd Power play makes Vancouver a dangerous team forwards one through nine, and he has shown that he knows where the other end of the ice is as well and will not be a defensive detriment to this team. The Canucks goaltending from Cory Schneider has been almost as good as what Niemi has produced in San Jose. Schneider has had to steal victory from the jaws of defeat more than should have been required. I feel that goaltending is awash in this series.

To me, the series will be won or lost not on goaltending and offensive production. It will be won on defence and Special Teams. The Canucks blue line has been an enigma all season. The two constants have been Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison. Garrison, who struggled mightily finding his niche the first quarter of the season has found his game and not only is contributing on the score sheet, but has been more than dependable in his own end. Alex Edler could be the key to the whole series, in my eyes. Edler is capable of being the best d-man on either club this round, and maybe should be. Yet his game has been consistently inconsistent this year, with poor decisions on the power play, bad first passes out of his own end which have led to many quality shots against, and poor reads in all zones of the ice, which have bade him a liability more than an asset on too many occasions. The health to Kevin Bieksa is crucial for this team in the playoffs. He is a riverboat gambler, but plays with a mean streak, can chip in with timely offensive production, and be a royal pain for the Sharks top forwards. The loss of Chris ‘Cool’ Tanev hurts, but it appears the Canucks are willing to roll the dice on young Frank Corrado, who did not look out of his element in his first week in the NHL.

Special Teams has been a strength of the Sharks all season long, boasting a top 10 record both Shorthanded and on the Power play this season. It is well chronicled just how anemic the Canucks power play has been this season, yet it showed serious signs of life the last quarter of the season, with the return of Ryan Kesler to the lineup and the addition of Derek Roy. I feel that Jason Garrison has earned his way onto that first unit, yet he has not been able to find himself in that spot. To me, this is a mistake. You have to use your best weapons at this time of the year, and to me, Garrison is a much better fit than Alex Edler at this stage. The Canucks penalty kill has been fantastic down the homestretch. It will need to continue to be so. If it can, it will stifle a Sharks offense that struggled in a big way at 5 on 5 this season.

Prediction? I say the Canucks in 5. Not because San Jose is a weak team and I feel they should be taken lightly. I just feel that this club has shown more consistent success in May hockey than San Jose. (and there is not many teams you can say that about) The goaltending is a wash, in my opinion and I feel the Canucks feel they have just as much to prove as San Jose does. And I’m maybe in the minority, but I am not worried for a second about the health of Cory Schneider when Wednesday rolls around. If there was true fear from the management and coaching staff as to his health, do you really think Roberto Luongo would have even started the last game of the regular season against the Oilers, for fear of losing him to injury and running to the playoffs with Joe Cannata as your #1? I think not. I see many 2-1 or 3-2 games in this series future. Maybe two in OT. But past success, and an equal drive to win when it matters most, along with home ice tells me the Canucks find a way to close this series out in five.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233

Raymond Kirk: With The Canucks Health Improving, Can The Team Make a Playoff Run?

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The 2013 NHL Trade Deadline has come and gone, and like it or not, Canuck fans now know exactly what the Vancouver Canucks look like as they head into the final quarter of the Regular Season and Playoffs.

GM Mike Gillis was able to make one trade the day before the deadline, acquiring skilled centre Derek Roy from the Dallas Stars, with prospect Defenseman Kevin Connauton. Considering the cost of a rental player at the deadline this season, I feel it was a more than fair price to pay to address a need that could be considered critical if the Canucks are to make any sort of long run in the postseason this year.  It’s no secret that an effective, consistent centre for the second and third line in the wake of injuries to Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra has virtually been nonexistent. Rookie Jordan Schroeder has had a decent beginning to his NHL rookie season, but has not been consistent game in and game out. Max Lapierre has been “OK” yet still takes the mind numbing penalty every second or third game that just makes you shake your head, and is not an offensive catalyst to say the least, and is best served in a 4th line capacity. And although Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins have done an admirable job in attempting to Center a second line at times, it is not the natural position for either player and has created holes all throughout the line-up that have led the once high-octane Canucks offense to become a check like crazy and hope to score two goals a game team that has brought comparisons to the dreadful style of hockey that Jacques Lemaire’s Minnesota Wild used to play. Tolerable, as long as you are winning, but brutal to watch when your goalie or defence has an off night, as has been the case in the last two losses to the youthful, exciting to watch Edmonton Oilers and the physical well-coached San Jose Sharks.

With Derek Roy making his Canucks debut against the Oilers, Zack Kassian returning from his surprise “wake up call” conditioning stint with the Chicago Wolves, and Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Dale Weise and Keith Ballard all appearing to be close to returning from short and long term injuries, the Canucks are almost as close as they have been all season to being ‘healthy’ for the stretch drive and a battle with the much improved Minnesota Wild for the NW title.  And lest we forget the Oilers, who have found confidence to go along with their undeniable youth and talent, now sit only five points back in the chase for the NW, with all three teams having twelve games left in their schedule. It made last night’s matchup with Edmonton even more important, as the Canucks needed to find a way to stop a short two game slide and do what they can to keep the Oilers at bay, if not for division title purposes, then at least for playoff seeding. With the return of the injured bodies, I firmly believe that we will see a return of the offense that has been in hibernation since the second Kesler injury.

As glum as it has appeared at times for Vancouver this season, it is worth keeping in mind that only Chicago, Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Montreal and Boston have more points. Granted, Vancouver is stuck in a pack of several other teams either tied or right behind them for overall points this season, but considering this club has virtually played all season with only one legitimate offensive center, a “goalie controversy” that will now not be addressed at least until the summer. The fact that the Canucks are still in the race for another division crown and are getting healthy at the right time, should bode well for this team’s chances of locking up home ice for the only season that matters…the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I still firmly believe that it is much more important to be playing your best hockey and important games late in the season, and this club has not really had to play important games down the homestretch the last couple of years.

Sure, there are many reasons to be discouraged by the play of the two-time defending Presidents Trophy winning club, but in the end those teams did not end up winning the ultimate prize. This team needs much to go right over the next month (and hopefully beyond) to make some serious noise. Just like the LA Kings did last season, and the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings did before them. The key is getting to the dance in the first place and we’ll have the answers to these questions soon enough.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Help if you can! Canucks For Kids Fund Telethon Goes Tomorrow.

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The trade deadline has come and gone and Roberto Luongo is still a Vancouver Canuck. But before we watch the season unfold down the stretch and into head into the playoffs, there is one more important day coming up tomorrow, April 4th, as the Canucks hold their annual Canucks for Kids Fund Telethon during tomorrow’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.

CFKF Telethon raised more than $1.3 million during the 2011/12 NHL season, through phone/online donations and fundraising events throughout the year. The fund dedicates resources to assist charities which support children’s health and wellness, foster the development of grassroots hockey, and facilitate and encourage education in British Columbia. Over its 27 year history, the Fund has raised more than $41 million for the children and families of our province.

This year we are excited that our own Bruce Ng will be representing CanucksCorner.com and taking pregame phone pledges during the telethon. If you get to speak with Bruce, we’re sure his kind, enthusiastic voice will convince you to make a big donation!

In addition to possibly getting to talk to Bruce there are other great incentives if you make a donation to the cause:

  • Enter by Midnight April 4th, 2013 and you could win a 2013 Chevrolet Trax LTZ.
  • Donate $150 or more and receive both “Century of Hockey” and “Milestone Memory” photographs.
  • Donate $100 and receive an exclusive 8″ x 10″ photograph of a “Century of Hockey”.

You can make an online donation by clicking here, or call in your donation tomorrow night during the game at Toll Free at 1.85.KIDSFUND (1-855-437-3863).

Help the kids if you can, it’s a really great cause!


 

Raymond Kirk: Canucks are lacking desperation in their game.

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Today marks the midway point through the 2013 Vancouver Canucks season, and this club finds itself in a situation that they and their fan base is not accustomed to over the last several years, in that they have won less than half of their games played.

Thanks to the benefit of the loser point and a weak Northwest Division, the Canucks have held the division lead up until tonight’s loss to Minnesota. The division lead of course means a the difference bewteen a third seed in the playoff seeding or finding your self in an uncomfortable fight for a playoff spot in the second half of the season.

Sure, there have been injuries, as Ryan Kesler and David Booth, when healthy, have the ability to be more than adequate second line (or first line) players, however, almost every team has had or has players that have been out due to injury that could boast the same claim.

What has plagued the Canucks, and should be of great concern to them, as well as their fans, is the seeming lack of desperation and killer instinct for sixty full minutes game in and game out. This has been of concern ever since their galvanizing win against the Boston Bruins last season. Since then, the team seems to have peaked, and plays as if they are comfortable that their skill set and sheer talent will carry them to victories night in and night out, often with success, however, on those nights (and they are happening more frequently) when their opposition comes to work hard for a full sixty, the Canucks seem unable to ramp their compete level to match their opponent, leaving games that should be put out of reach until the final minutes, or left to the Overtime skills competition, which Vancouver has proved to be less than adequate in through the years.

Too many games see this team either flat the first twenty, only turning it on to make a game close at the end, or they come blazing out of the gates to a quick lead, and then quit playing at the same level, and let lesser teams bring the battle level to them. Last Thursday against Columbus, under manned themselves, found the Canucks clinging to the game for long stretches, letting a far inferior team control the pace and play. This, quite simply, is unacceptable for this franchise with the skill and players that they can put on the ice night in and night out.

Special teams have been anything but. I do not know how many times this season the Canucks could have put a game out of reach in the third period with a key power play goal or a big kill, but have been unable to do so. If it was just a 10-15 game stretch, one could understand, as all teams will go through peaks and valleys through a year, however, going back to last season, this is a 50-60 game sample size, and that has become a trend that has to end, and end quickly, if this team wants to be able to be considered a legitimate threat to make noise in the Western Conference this season.

Is it a ‘Country Club’ attitude that has taken over this team, who has forgotten how to work hard to achieve results? Is it a weak Division that hasn’t made this team play with desperation through a year to achieve success that is needed through consistent hard work, which is what, is required to get through the grueling spring playoff run? Has the team tuned out the message that Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness preach for this team to have success? Or is a shake up, and not a minor one, to the roster required to bust this team out of its current funk? The answer is probably a little bit of all of the above. It can be fixed. There is enough character and skill in the dressing room to carry this team to more consistent play. It’s become common to say wait until April when the ‘real’ hockey starts, however, if this team doesn’t play April hockey earlier this season, it will find themselves in the same spot they were five games into an all too short playoff run last season, wondering just exactly what went wrong.

Your thoughts?  Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Toby Ward: Sub-par Canucks are a below average team

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The Canucks surrendered the Northwest Division league Sunday evening to the Minnesota Wild. The good news? There is still time to turn things around. The bad news: the Canucks are a below average team.

Disagree? A closer look at the numbers will change your mind:

  • Goals for: 17th (2.7)
  • Goals against: 20th (2.52)
  • Shots for: 18th (28.7)
  • Shots against: 21st (28.0
  • Power play: 20th (15.7%)
  • Penalty kill: 18th (80.7%)

The average ranking of the above six key categories: 19th (out of 30). Sub-par.

What is the reason behind the Canucks’ sub-par season? There is no one answer, but a combination of factors: injuries, questionable refereeing (if not biased), some unfortunate luck, and poor coaching.

Firstly, we miss Kesler and Bieksa – they noticeably improve the Canucks. Secondly, you need only look at the Calgary game and the bench minor assessed to Vigneault to understand the impact a ref can have on a game. Thirdly, in games the Canucks were clearly the better team and should have won, but managed to find a way to lose (Columbus, San Jose and Dallas).

Finally, coaching: look no further than special teams and the shots differential, and you get the drift. Additional clues: favourite pets getting preferential treatment: Lapierre (nearly 16 minutes last game) over Schroeder (9 minutes); Alberts over Ballard (arguably our best defensemen after the quarter-season mark, and then was benched after one bad game. If Edler was benched after each bad game, he’d be out of the line-up half the time); Raymond at center (it was bad enough that a prototypical winger, one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, was moved to center, but his dismal faceoff record completely undermines his misplacement – a disastrous 1 for 9 his first game, a pathetic 1 for 6 the next game. How did Vigneault respond? Raymond was back at center in Columbus.

Unfortunately, A.V., the team needs to come before egos.  And your team, unless you make changes, is sub-par.

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Toby Ward is a season ticket holder, former reporter and producer covering the Canucks turned consultant, and blogger. A lifelong Canucks fan who bleeds blue and green, Toby first saw the Canucks when they hosted Bobby Orr and the Bruins in 1974.