Gotta love them Canes!

by Jason Kurylo

Canucks celebrate a goal versus Carolina. Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com
Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

By now, the Vancouver Canucks are probably circling home games against the Carolina Hurricanes as soon as the NHL publishes the season schedule. For the second time in as many visits, the Hurricanes provided just what the Canuck doctors ordered to get off the schneid.

On February 3, 2009, Vancouver had lost eight straight games, and some guy named Mats Sundin was being blamed for pretty much every sorry period of the skid. The Canes had lost three straight games in Vancouver, but given the Canucks’ recent penchant for dropping games they should win, pundits were not confident going in.

Well, the top points-getter in Maple Leafs history responded with a goal and an assist, and Alexandre Burrows scored a short-handed goal with 82 seconds left on the clock to give the Canucks a 4-3 victory. Roberto Luongo recorded his first win in six games after returning from a groin injury.  Ryan Kesler scored his third goal in two games after suffering an embarrassing 11-game slump. The Canucks would subsequently go on a wicked tear, and enter the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.

So fans of this year’s Cup favourites shouldn’t be surprised by this snake bitten Canucks team beating the tar out of the Southeast Division cellar dwellers, 5-1.

Cory Schneider got his first start of the season tonight, which came as a surprise, as Luongo almost never sits on the bench for a home game when he’s not injured. It turned out not to matter – Schneider was never truly pressured by the woeful “offense” of Carolina. Sure, he stopped 32 of 33 shots – the only one to get by him came as Patrick O’Sullivan slapped one home on a two-on-one break. Schneider was solid, however, keeping rebounds to a minimum and letting his D-men do the heavy lifting most of the night.

Mason Raymond scored his first two goals of the year, one skating on the top line when Daniel Sedin found him streaking through the slot in typical Sedinian fashion. The other came on the man advantage: Mikael Samuelsson’s shot was bobbled by Cam Ward, and Jeff Tambellini put a no-look pass through a series of skates to give Raymond a wrister for his first of the year.

That same Samuelsson also scored his first goal of the year after Kevin Bieksa made a great read to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone. Sammy added two assists for good measure. Perhaps the Swedish Olympic team sent him another Dear Johan letter after the California road trip? Whatever, the man came through tonight with a solid effort despite being demoted to the third line.

Ryan Kesler again had several great chances early, and again he booted the puck. With an open net in the first period, he rang the puck squarely off the post. On a two-on-one in the second, he failed to even get a shot. Late in the third, however, Kesler took a soft power play pass from Christian Ehrhoff about fifteen metres out and rifled a one-timer into the top corner past Cam Ward.

Henrik Sedin had two assists tonight, tying him with Brad Richards and John-Michael Liles for the league lead with seven.

As mentioned, none of this comes as a shock against the AHL-quality roster of the Carolina Hurricanes. What was a surprise? How about the guy who opened the scoring. Andrew Alberts put home his own rebound from three metres out, finishing after some hard work by Manny Malhotra. Yes, true believers, Andrew freakin’ Alberts, for a few minutes in game five, had more goals on the season than Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and Ryan Kelser combined.

A truer test of this Canucks team comes soon – they play three games in four nights, including one against the dirty rotten stinkin’ Chicago Blackhawks, starting Tuesday. Look for Schneider to get at least one of those starts. And remember to break out the Sharpie when next year’s schedule comes out. You know, to circle the home date against the Canes.

Follow Jason Kurylo on Twitter. :: Subscribe to his hockey podcast, Pucked in the Head, on iTunes. :: Find out why the Carolina Hurricanes are just so awful.

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Jason Kurylo: No time to panic

Jason Kurylo, CanucksCorner.com

After the fourth game of the season, the Canucks have been the better team in 10 of 12 periods so far. They’ve held time-of-possession advantages in each game, out-chanced the other guys, and they’ve offered occasional flashes of the exciting, offensive hockey that won them the Northwest Division last season. They’ve shown, for the most part, defensive responsibility and solid, confident goaltending from Roberto Luongo.

Yet somehow, the Canucks have lost twice to the Kings – once in overtime – and been beaten in regulation by the lowly Ducks. Their only win of the young season came in unconvincing fashion against a team that will likely finish at the bottom of the hockeytrocity that is the Southeast Division.

So, as many a Canuck fan is posting on Twitter, “WTF?!?”

Canuck shooters have made Jonathan Quick look even better than he really is in consecutive losses. When they have put pucks past the young LA netminder, they’ve just plain missed the net. There have been posts, rolling pucks, bobbled chances, bad ice and good saves by opposition goalies. Mikael Samuelsson even managed to hit a crossbar against Floriday – while Tomas Vokoun was on the bench for the extra Panther attacker.

Roberto LuongoComing the other way, the Canucks could easily have had shutouts in both home games so far this year. The Kings took advantage of a late power play to score their only goal on opening night in a game they would eventually win in a shootout. Those Panthers also scored just one goal against Luongo: a desperation shot that pinballed off of two different players on its way in. Similarly, the Kings’ second goal in game four went in off the skate of Kevin Bieksa, on what looked like a broken play.

But why stop there? Referees seemed to scheme against the Nucks in Anaheim, giving the Ducks a pair of two-man advantages on phantom calls. Throw in a missed too-many-men call that resulted directly in the winning goal against, and Vancouver hockey fans were left scratching their heads.

So what’s the good news?

This edition of the Vancouver Canucks, led by the new captain Henrik Sedin, is saying all the right things. “We should have put them away in the second period,” said Henrik of the Ducks, acknowledging the referee mistakes are no excuse for allowing a lesser team to stay in the game. And he’s right; if Vancouver had buried just one or two of their myriad chances in the first forty minutes, those sleepy Ducks and their ref-assisted goals would not have mattered.

Even Ryan Kesler, whose penchant for complaints on-ice and moody media scrums probably took him out of the running for the captaincy, shrugged off the poor early record. “The refs miss calls like we miss plays,” he said after Stephen Walkam’s officiating crew gifted the Ducks their sole win of the season. “We can’t blame them for our missed chances.”

Now, don’t get me wrong – the Canucks haven’t done themselves any favours, either. Perhaps as a result of all the pre-season hype, Vancouver skaters have elected to pass far more often than shoot. They haven’t driven the net like they should. Opposition goalies have seen far too much of the puck, and not nearly enough of Canuck screens on the edge of the crease. Kesler should be fighting for pucks within a three-foot radius of the net, not finessing wrist shots into the netminder’s breadbasket from the blue line. Unless your name is Sedin, you probably shouldn’t be trying to find a cross-ice seam when you’ve got a chance to go to the net. After that debacle of game management that was the 4-3 loss to the Ducks, these guys should have come out on fire in LA. They outshot the Kings, sure, but looked flat much of the night, and once again saw zero offense outside of a pretty rush by the Sedins.

It took these same boys a while to learn these lessons last year as well. Remember, the Canucks followed up an 0-3 start to the season by winning the division.

If Vancouver is still looking for better results after three or four weeks, panic buttons should be pressed. But chances are, once Manny Malhotra gets a gimme of a short-handed goal, or Kesler gets a lucky one to go in off his left butt cheek, or hell, when Luongo gets enough bounces to tally his first shutout of the year, this team will see some serious win streaks start to pile up.

This team has too much talent, and too few egos, not to.

Follow Jason Kurylo on Twitter: @PuckedInTheHead

Subscribe to his NHL hockey podcast, Pucked in the Head, on iTunes.

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One win. Two games. Three points.

by Jason Kurylo

Daniel Sedin’s two goals in the second game of the 2010-11 season are probably a blueprint for how the Vancouver Canucks want the season to go. Last year’s vaunted offence outscored everyone in the Western Conference, and our boys finished second only to the Washington Capitals in league scoring. This year’s squad, built around a sleeker, more reliable Roberto Luongo and an impressive array of blueline talent, will probably have a few more games like this one: a two-to-one squeaker where the Swedes manufacture a timely game winner.

Daniel Sedin celebrates with brother Henrik. Photo: Canucks.com

Daniel Sedin celebrates one of his two goals against Florida on Thanksgiving. Photo: Canucks.com

Luongo faced a lot of rubber tonight. Most of it came from the outside, but when the Florida Panthers did get the puck into the slot, he made the saves – even rebounds – look easy. Mostly, however, the Canucks looked collected in allowing the opposition take a few shots, and in clearing the puck in much calmer fashion than they did last year. In all, Luongo made 41 saves, several of the outstanding variety with Cats standing right on top of him. Luongo looks more solid in these past two games than he’s looked in the past two seasons. The only puck to get by him was a harmless looking point shot that caromed off two skates before crossing the line.

It’s at the other end that the Canucks seem a little rattled, for some reason. Ryan Kesler plum missed the net on a glorious two-on-one pass from Mason Raymond. Keith Ballard stood in the Florida crease and watched a beautiful Henrik Sedin pass scoot under his stick. (Blade on the ice, my good man, blade on the blasted ice.) With the Panther net empty in the dying seconds of the game, Mikael Samuelsson backhanded the puck off the bleedin’ crossbar, for goodness’ sake. As commentators John Shorthouse and John Garrett joked afterward, the players will probably spend some time after practice tomorrow trying to replicate that, and probably won’t be able to do it.

Don’t get me wrong – this was not a pretty game. Raffi Torres and Dan Hamhuis both had a couple of big hits early, but it wasn’t a particularly dirty game, either. The Panthers were not penalized once, despite having Darcy Hordichuk on the roster (a man Canucks fans will recognize from his myriad trips to the box for poor on-ice decisions). The home team only had to kill three penalties themselves, suggesting perhaps one of the zebras forgot to bring a whistle to the arena.

Neither of Daniel’s goals were a thing of beauty. Halfway through the first period, Hank won a draw to the side boards, where Samuelsson whipped a backhand at Tomas Vokoun. When a wee rebound sat to the side of the net, Daniel chipped it over the Czech netminder’s shoulder into the top corner. It was a quality play, for sure, but not one for the Sedin highlight reel. At that point, the crowd thought the Canucks would break out for one of the five- or six-goal outbursts that punctuated last season. But hand it to the Panthers: they play a numbing style of game that kept the snipers off the scoresheet for another two periods.

When Rostislav Olesz’s weak shot pinballed in to tie the game with under a minute to play in the second period, those same fans probably thought the Canucks were in for the same spoiler treatment they got from the LA Kings on opening night. Two games in a row, the home team went up 1-0 early. Two games in a row, they could not find an insurance marker. Two games in a row, they let a lesser team tie things up in rather unimpressive fashion.

Dank’s second goal of the night, which turned out to be the 45th game-winning goal of his career, came on a broken play that turned into a goalmouth scramble. With the puck lying to Vokoun’s left, Daniel leapt across the crease to steer it home with just under five minutes to play.

And so, the Vancouver Canucks sit at 1-0-1 after their first two games. Both nights featured some promising team play and impressive work by Roberto Luongo. The Sedins each have three points (Daniel with 2G, 1A; Henrik with 3A), and look to be just warming up at this point. Raffi Torres, Peter Schaefer and Manny Malhotra are providing the grit in the bottom six that was promised umpteen times over the off-season. Mason Raymond is blazing around out there, and has been shooting five times a game. Goals will come.

With the steadying influence of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard back there, the Canuck defense has yet to get running around like they have been prone to do over the past two seasons. Andrew Alberts is playing a successful game as a depth defenseman, and Kevin Bieksa has made fewer dumb mistakes with that assistant captain’s A on his left breast.

There hasn’t been any exciting Canucks hockey yet this year, but there’s been plenty to like. Next up: the woeful Anaheim Ducks, whose Swiss cheese defense just might be what these forwards need to wake up a little bit.

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In Case You Missed It: The Sedins On The Hour

This is a little bit of old news, but Daniel and Henrik Sedin recently appeared on the popular CBC talk show “The Hour” hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. It’s a nice interview and the twins talk about their careers, their fondness for Vancouver, and what it’s like to play hockey in a Canadian city. I thought it would be nice to post it here for people to enjoy.

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Olympic Impact Could Help Canucks

As we all nurse our Olympic hangovers and search for other ways to fill the void by the end of the games, it’s time to get ready for the final push of the NHL season. The Canucks had seven players in the games, and they had varying degrees of success. Three players in particular had great games, and they will bring into the dressing room a complete set of Vancouver 2010 medals. Let’s take a look at how the Olympic tournament may just help the Canucks as they aim to take another Northwest Division crown and go on a lengthy playoff run.

Pavol Demitra – Slovakia

Pavol Demitra - Matthew Manor/HHOF-IIHF ImagesMany Canuck fans may had forgotten who Pavol Demitra was, and you could hardly blame them for doing so. Demitra, 35, who missed 47 games for the Canucks with annoying shoulder problem that required two operations and many opinions on treatment. He returned to the Canucks on January 16th, but had struggled to find his game notching just a goal and three assists in 11 appearances since his return. Of course people were willing to cut him slack after missing so many games, but just before the Olympics Demitra was starting to get some heat from fans and media to start producing and he was seeing time on the teams fourth line.

Playing for his country seemed to be the tonic that Demitra needed and the veteran Slovak led his team to a best-ever fourth-place finish, while earning a spot on the tournaments all-star team. He also nearly ruined the hopes of the Canadian public with a last second goal in the semi-final but was thwarted by teammate Roberto Luongo. Demitra’s continued success would be a huge bonus for the Canucks heading down the stretch, but he won’t be playing with Marion Gaborik and Michael Handzus when play resumes. Early reports say he’ll start the post Olympic session on a line with Ryan Kesler.

Roberto Luongo

Roberto Luongo - Photo: John MahoneyThere is no doubt that most had resigned themselves to the fact that Roberto Luongo would be the backup to Martin Brodeur heading into the games, and that was the plan when they began. But when the future hall of famer had a sub par game versus the USA, Luongo got his chance and the pressure to win was no doubt immense. Playing in front of his fans in Vancouver, in his rink and with the hopes of a nation riding on his shoulders, Luongo got the job done and won gold.

Luongo has had his critics, and their biggest beef has been the fact that he hadn’t won the big one. A couple of playoff series wins are the only thing on his resume and he needed to take that step. Well on the biggest stage in the world, he got the monkey off his back. No more can critics say Luongo can’t win the big game and with that label out of the way, who knows how it will translate to his role with the Canucks. He’ll get a brief rest and give way to Andrew Raycroft versus Columbus but he should return to the net with confidence of knowing he can win the big games. That in itself could be the key to a long playoff run for the Canucks.

Ryan Kesler

Ryan Kesler - Canucks.comKesler had an outstanding tournament for the USA. He was a leader all over the ice. He killed penalties, won huge face offs and did what Kesler does best…pissed a lot of people off. The same reasons you love him as a Canuck were the ones you hated him as a Canadian. He took shots at his teammate Roberto Luongo in the media, and on the ice. Some felt there was friction between the two but I tend to believe all will be fine in Canuckville, and it was part of the quest for the gold.

The experience for Kesler had to be a valuable one. He led a great hockey team to within a sudden death goal of a gold medal, and the Canucks should reap the benefit of that experience. He’s truly becoming one of the best two way players in the game, and he can contribute in many ways. It sounds like Alain Vigneault will pair Kesler with Demitra to start when play resumes. If both can keep up their inspired play, the Canucks will be a tough team to handle going forward.

The disappointment of losing the gold should feed Kesler’s thirst for a cup and we should see the best Ryan Kesler we’ve seen yet down the stretch. I can’t wait.

The Rest

The other Canucks, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Christian Erhoff and Sami Salo should all be better for the experience. The early exit for the Sedin’s at the hands of the Slovaks was unfortunate for them, but they should pick up where they left off. Salo will bring home a bronze medal for his efforts, but Canucks fans are just happy he came out of the games healthy. Erhoff, playing for the Germans had little expectation of hardware, but got to compete at a high level in a great tournament.

So in the end the results of the tournament set up pretty good for these players to turn their experience into good things for themselves and their teammates. I’m sure a cup  and a ring to along with the gold, silver and bronze in the room would suit the Canucks and their fans just fine.

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