Jason Kurylo: Early Western Conference Playoff Predictions

In all, the Canucks regular season has been a damned good one. Despite a less-than stellar campaign from Roberto Luongo and long-term injuries to Daniel Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Pavol Demitra, and Willie Mitchell, our boys have performed well. Henrk Sedin leads the scoring race, as just the fourth Canuck to crack the century mark. Mikael Samuelsson, Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kesler are all having career years, and Mason Raymond has chipped in for 20-plus goals for good measure.

So what do the playoffs hold? Why should we self-appointed pundits wait for the end of the season? I’m completely willing to stick my neck out there before the match-ups are even finalized.

Here are a few predictions on the Western Conference match-ups based on what we see right now, T-minus six games before the second season begins:

(1) San Jose Sharks vs (8) LA Kings

Joe Thorton by jillig, on FlickrYou heard it here first: the Kings will finish up as the eighth seed in the West. San Jose should walk through the upstart Kings, especially considering the Sharks recent winning streak. The Kings, on the other hand, have lost four straight and seven of their last ten games. Sure, LA has Ryan Smyth to stir up some emotion in the room, but this is just a too-young team that’s flagging after an impossibly fast start. San Jose, on the other hand, has woken up from their post-Olympic nap, and look dangerous. This is a healthy, hungry team that wants to ditch their rep as playoff chokers. Dont be surprised if Joe Thornton plays an angrier game after sitting out a couple to rest the shoulder he injured in this weekends win over the Canucks.

Preediction: Sharks in five.

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs (7) Colorado Avalanche

The Avs haven’t exactly been tearing it up themselves, but they wont stumble quite enough to let the sad-sack Flames catch them, and theyll take advantage of their five remaining home dates to skip past the Kings. Steve Duchene is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, and Paul Stastny is a scoring threat from anywhere, but these guys just wont be able to skate with Chicago. The Hawks cant be happy to be without Brian Campbell on the back end, but this is a team full of speed and swagger. Last years run to the conference final was considered a fluke these kids didn’t know what they were doing this years club has their eyes on Lord Stanley

Prediction: Chicago in five.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) Nashville Predators

Roberto LuongoThe Predators are putting together quite the late-season run in Smashville, and, interestingly this team looks a lot like the Canucks. Oh, they don’t have a 100-point man like we do in fact, not a single player is over 50 points. But this is a team that scores by committee, something we’ve been privy to here in Vancouver. They play well on the road. There is no dominant top line; everyone on this Preds squad chips in. The defence corps for Vancouver will have to keep their wits about them. Nashville has ten players with ten goals or more; we have nine. The lingering concussion symptoms for Willie Mitchell put the Canucks D under the spotlight, something that literally bit the teams back end in last years heartbreaking second-round loss to the Hawks. And goaltending? Since the Olympic break, Pekka Rinne leads Roberto Luongo in goals against average, save percentage and shutouts. To paraphrase Alain Vigneault, however, if Luongo is the Canucks biggest worry heading into the playoffs, they’ll be all right. Sure, Bobby Lou’s GAA hasn’t been what it should be. Yeah, he let in a few weak goals against Edmonton. But hey, this is Roberto Luongo here, and that was Edmonton; its not like were still being subjected to Dan Cloutier in the #1 position. If the Sedins score, great. If not, no worries, for the first time in a while, we’ve got other guys who will.

Prediction: Vancouver in six.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs (5) Detroit Red Wings

Hockey fans are shaking their heads over both of these teams. With the off-season legal circus over Jim Balsillie trying to move the Yotes to southern Ontario, was there even a single hockey expert who picked them to top 100 points? They’re played over their heads all season, and there’s no reason to think they wont continue to do so. Oh, wait there’s the small matter of that other team on the ice. Detroit, just three weeks ago, flirted with tenth spot in the West. Its taken a Herculean effort by coach Mike Babcock to shape this veteran Red Wing squad for another run at Lord Stanley. And goaltending? Ilya Bryzgalov has none other than Wayne Gretzky trumpeting his name for Hart Trophy consideration. Jimmy Howard just won a spectacular goaltending duel with Rinne in Nashville one where both goalies played shutout hockey for 65 minutes, and Detroit finally won it in the 11th round of the shootout. Detroit, like San Jose, is healthy and hungry. Detroit, unlike San Jose, has been a Cup finalist the past two years these guys know how to win.

Prediction: Detroit in four.

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Jason Kurylo: Defence Still A Concern Heading Into Playoffs

Coming into the season, the Vancouver defense core was envied around the league. Things were so strong on the back end, Mike Gillis felt  justified in letting stalwart, career-Canuck Mattias Ohlund go via free agency. Now, nearly 70 regular season games later, with Kevin Bieksa returning after a lengthy recovery from a skate cut, this D is closer to the one that so scared Western Conference teams in the pre- season, but will it be enough to make a deep run into the playoffs?

Perhaps the one problem this squad faces is the lack of a shut down defenseman. It’s a hole left gaping wide by the continued absence of Willie Mitchell, who would normally eat up 20-plus minutes of ice  time against the opposition’s top players if he wasn’t still experiencing symptoms from the concussion suffered back in January. Mitchell doesn’t guarantee wins, but he’s a settling influence and a rare animal: a big, tough blueliner who plays a smart game. Without him, the top six sag just a little. Why do you think Luongo is  sitting on four shutouts at this point in the season, instead of  nine? Why his goals against average in the past 10 games is nearly double where it should be? NHL coaches exploit those lapses faster than a Sami Salo slapshot. In an extended series against teams like Chicago, San Jose or Detroit, Vancouver will find themselves in tough without a big, tough presence in front of Luongo to scare the bejesus out of the other guys’ forwards.

Alex Edler battles in front of Roberto Luongo

Bieksa shores up the blue line for sure – he’s not been spectacular, but he’s looked solid in his first few games back. In that dominant first period against the Flames, Juice even jumped up into a rush in just his second game back. You know, to bolster up the NHL’s second-highest scoring offense. But as tough as this guy is, he’s not big enough to wrestle with Dustin Byfuglien, Joe Thornton or even Todd Bertuzzi.

A man who is big enough is Andrew Alberts, the one guy Gillis did manage to pick up at the deadline. Alain Vigneault has been sitting Shane O’Brien in order to get a good look at the new guy. Sadly, he  hasn’t looked like top six; he’s barely looked NHL. He was out of position on Phoenix’s first two goals on “The Road Trip”, and got out-muscled and out-hustled by John Tavares to put Vancouver down 2-0 and 4-2 against the 27th-place New York Islanders. The latter of those Tavares plays came with 7.2 ticks left on the clock in the second period, after the Canucks had clawed their way back to within one.

Instead of making an 11th third period comeback, Vancouver watched the 20-year-old pile up five points, more points than any other rookie in that storied franchise has ever scored. Pat Lafontaine,

Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, even Mike Bossy – they didn’t get on the scoresheet five times in a single game in their first year. The Nuck defense, led by the twice-guilty Alberts, let Tavares have his way. Inexcusable.

Don’t even get me started on #41’s pylon impression against the Senators. Jason Spezza, with a head of steam at centre ice, saw Salo to his left and Alberts to his right. No hesitation. He went straight for Alberts, and just plain embarrassed the big man.

The defense isn’t a disaster — Aaron Rome has been a pleasant surprise. With injuries to Mitchell, Bieksa and Salo, Rome has seen a lot more ice than AV had ever intended. He’s played good strong defence, and even sprung a few breakaways, including Kyle Wellwood’s memorable game-winning goal against the Red Wings in Detroit.

Salo and Christian Ehrhoff have been great on the offensive points. It’s a good thing, too, or we’d also be talking about the coaching staff’s inability to make it work with veteran quarterback Matthieu Schneider. Alex Edler hasn’t duplicated his 10-goal performance from last season, but he’s been good.

Shane O’Brien is no Mitchell. He’s slower than a top four blueliner should be, he can’t find shooting lanes nearly often enough, and every once in a while he gets run around and ends up wearing the goat horns. But he’s a damn sight more reliable than Alberts. O’Brien needs to be in the lineup for the stretch run, or we risk more losses to teams like NYI. San Jose? Detroit? Phoenix? Don’t even think about it.

This Canucks team isn’t looking to win games 2-1 like it was two or three years ago. But the Black Hawks showed us last year that 7-5 isn’t going to go our way most nights. It’s a simple recipe, really. Tighter D, or much earlier tee times than most Vancouver fans would like to see.

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Great Dane! Jannik Hansen’s Clutch Goals Helping Canucks

Jannik HansenWith just 16 games left in the season, Henrik Sedin finds himself four points behind Alex Ovechkin for the league league in scoring. 

Ryan Kesler powered the Americans to an unlikely silver medal at the Olympics and has just been announced as the poster boy for NHL 2K11.

Alexandre Burrows just topped the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career, Mikael Samuelsson’s first-career hat trick has him at a personal best 27 goals on the campaign, and in all, eight Canucks are in double digits for goals this season. Kyle Wellwood needs just one more marker to join the 10-goal club.

But around the locker room, it’s Jannik Hansen that’s the man of the moment.

In the last two games – both of which Vancouver entered the third period down a goal – Hansen has been the Canuck with a GWG beside his name, something that likely means a lengthy stay in the press box for odd-man-out Steve Bernier. Bernier hasn’t scored an important goal in recent memory. Hansen, on the other hand, has two very memorable ones. They were very different goals.

In Nashville on Sunday, he scored perhaps the most intelligent goal Canuck fans have been privy to all season. (That’s saying something; the Sedins are two of the most cerebral forwards in this man’s NHL.) Hansen noticed two Predators collide at the Canuck blue line, jumped across centre and tapped his stick on the ice. He corralled a pass from Kyle Wellwood, settled the rolling puck between the faceoff circles, and took a wrist shot on Pekka Rinne. Nope, he didn’t pick the corner, or hit the sweet spot Trevor Linden was always fond of, between the goalie’s glove and goalie stick. In fact, Rinne made the save. What made the difference? Hansen didn’t peel off at full speed into the corner, like so many more “natural” scorers seem to do. He didn’t go past the net at all. In fact, he just plain stopped, and looked for the puck. Lo and behold, the Finn couldn’t control the shot, and it rolled right to Hansen – who was right there to swat it home. Smart.

Tuesday was less brainy a play, maybe, but it was still pretty damned smart. Aaron Rome’s shot was a hot one, and Colorado goalie Craig Anderson was pretty rattled after allowing Vancouver to tie the game at four. I mean, hell, the Avs had led 3-0 after the first period. 

What goalie wouldn’t be worried?

(Besides, the ’Nucks are in ol’ Craig’s head – just as the Blackhawks seem to have Luongo’s number these days, Vancouver is just about the only team to get to Anderson this season. Even John Garrett called the Avalanche goaltender “the most consistent goalie this year in the NHL.”)

Hansen saw how far out of the net Anderson was, and just skated into the crease to look for garbage. He got it. The puck caromed off his rib, hit the goalie’s arm, and bounced into the net. Ugly, but it counted, and the Canucks had a 5-4 lead with two minutes left. For the second time in two games, Hansen celebrated a game-winning goal.

Guaranteed, more than one of the boys in the locker room has offered to buy the Great Dane a drink after this road trip’s over.

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What To Do With The Suddenly Dynamic Demitra?

Jason KuryloJoin us in welcoming our newest contributor to CanucksCorner.com, Jason Kurylo. Jason is a sports fan who has a writing background and a passion for the Canucks. We put out a call for writers on Twitter, and Jason answered. In his first blog for the site, Jason looks at the successful Olympics for Pavol Demitra and wonders what the Canucks options should be in dealing with the veteran Slovak and NHLer going forward.

We were treated to some pretty outstanding hockey in the Olympic tournament, of course, topped nicely by Captain Roberto Luongo preserving Canadian pride against Ryan Kesler’s second period goal and second intermission trash talk. Gold north of 49, thank you very much, and silver for our American brethren to the south.

In fact, Canucks figured in each of the top five teams in the tournament. (Sorry, Christian Ehrhoff fans, but your boy’s German team finished a distant 11th. The man can’t do it alone.)

Sami Salo helped Finland pick up its fifth men’s ice hockey medal since 1988 — his second, as he took home a silver in Torino in 2006. Side note: the Finns have more medals in men’s ice hockey in that time than any other nation. That’s right, the Finns.

They won’t be happy about it, but Henrik and Daniel Sedin didn’t get a sniff at medals this time round, despite taking gold outright last time round. They were knocked out by… the Slovaks?

The biggest surprise of the tournament wasn’t Canada taking gold, Crosby scoring in OT or even Marty stumbling to allow Luongo into the big show. It was the play of the Slovakian team, led by — get those questions marks ready again — Pavol Demitra?

Demitra’s performance since returning from off-season shoulder surgery has been mediocre at best. His slow feet and stone hands have brought to mind Mats Sundin’s slow mid-season re-entry to the NHL just a year ago. Sure, Demo tipped a shot home and scored in the shootout against the Bruins a week before the tournament. But other than that game, his spot on the roster has been largely wasted. After missing a couple of games to attend to a family illness, the 35-year-old Demitra, he of the $4 million annual salary, came back on Valentine’s Day to find himself on the fourth line.

So who predicted Pavol Demitra would not only lead his country to its best-ever Olympic showing, but that he would lead the Olympic tournament in scoring?

Cynics in Vancouver, myself included, pointed at his last-second miss against the Canadians in the semis: “There’s the Demitra we’re used to.” Luongo’s amazing glove save aside, Pavol’s inspired play for the Slovaks included a shootout winner over the Russians and a goal and two assists in what Demitra called “the biggest win in my country’s history” over the defending champs from Sweden. The ten points are six more than he’s put up with the Canucks this year, against much tougher competition. Then again, he was also playing with guys like Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Zdeno Chara.

The argument, then, is either for moving Demo back on to one of the top two lines — would the Sedins have him after that quarter final game? — or move him off the squad altogether. Don’t be surprised if this is one salary dump that gets done before the March 3 deadline. Either that, or Mike Gillis needs to get a Slovak flag hung in the rafters, STAT.

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