Good to be lucky, lucky to be good

MayRay Smallby Jason Kurylo

When the Vancouver Canucks walk out of Air Canada Centre with two points, they are just doing what they should do: kicking a bad team when it’s down. The Toronto Maple Leafs started the year 4-0, but have foundered since. With the Canucks taking tonight’s game 5-3, the Leafs have now lost eight straight games, and have scored just six goals in their last four losses. Vancouver should win this game going away, and have now done so in five straight visits to the ACC.

A problem for Vancouver seems to be letting poor teams stick around in games long enough to make it close. The Canucks outshot the Leafs 26-16 through two periods, but took a tied game into both intermissions. The Leafs are 28th in the league in goals for, but managed three goals in the first two periods alone against Vancouver’s vaunted team defense/Roberto Luongo combination. Hell, the Leafs went up 2-0 in this game, and looked poised to rack up the score if not for the mighty Bobby Lou. Sure, Luongo looked soft on the first and third goals, but he was called upon to make several wonderful saves in close to keep the game close while the offense warmed up.

If it weren’t for a cheeky 80-foot slap shot from Mason Raymond that snuck through Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s pads, the Canucks might not have earned two points this night. Look at the photo for this blog post – the ad behind Mason Raymond says “CHEESE SNACKS”, which pretty much perfectly describes his winning goal. Watching Raymond wind up at the blue line, one thought, “Oh MayRay, you’ll never score from — oh, I guess you will.” This is the Leafs, after all. Giguere would have been ribbed by teammates for letting this unobstructed, undeflected waffler get by him in practice. Letting it in for a game winning goal, for the team’s eighth straight loss? He’ll be lucky if his mates talk to him at all.

If this sounds familiar, it’s with good reason. The Canucks let the Oilers climb back from a 3-0 deficit before Raffi Torres scored a lucky backhand GWG from the circles a few games ago. Just before Hallowe’en, Vancouver let Colorado outshoot them 31-13 over the final two periods, and squeaked out an overtime win they probably didn’t deserve. You may ask, “What’s the big deal?” You may say, “Good teams find ways to win.” And you’d be right – it’s a concern, however, when your Stanley Cup-contending team needs to grind out lucky wins over opponents who sit in 19th, 27th and 29th place in a 30-team league.

It’s hard to complain when your team is leading the Northwest, but the Canucks are in serious danger of thinking too much of themselves. The fact is, leading the Northwest is no mean feat. Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary and Edmonton all sit out of playoff contention at the moment, and probably still will come season’s end. Just as the Washington Capitals have blown away the Southeast Division for two years running only to be ousted in the playoffs by stiffer competition, the Canucks have played too many games against soft opponents, and more often than not have won those games in sloppy, skin-of-their-teeth fashion. No wonder the Blackhawks have won second round matchups against Vancouver – they have learned to play tough hockey with divisional games against Detroit, Phoenix and St Louis.

Ryan Kesler is the first to admit it. “We played sloppy hockey,” he told the Vancouver Sun, “but we got the two points and that’s all that matters.” Sadly, this team can’t afford to think that way any more. Not if they want to win a Cup. This team needs to harden themselves into a group of killers that won’t take barely beat the Leafs for an answer.


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There’s good news, and there’s bad news…

The good news – it was a night of firsts

The Vancouver Canucks won their fourth consecutive game in Edmonton on Tuesday night, beating the young Oilers 4-3. With the win – the team’s first on the road so far this season – the Canucks have risen to the top of the Northwest Division with 14 points in 11 games.

Alex Burrows made his return to the lineup last night, and looked good early in the game. He went to the right places, and nearly potted his first goal of the season on a cheeky centering pass from Daniel Sedin. He was visibly tired in the second half of the game, understandable seeing as he hasn’t seen game action since the spring.

Raffi Torres - Photo Credit: Canucks.comRaffi Torres scored his first career hat trick, and interestingly became the first ex-Oiler to net three goals in one game against Edmonton. (That’s right, Wayne Gretzky couldn’t do it. Mark Messier didn’t manage it. Before Torres, no one had been able to score thrice in one game against the Oil after leaving the Edmonton organization. That’s right – not even Jimmy Carson.) Torres, one of the few NHLers of Latin American descent, now has six goals in 11 games – he scored 19 times in 74 games last season, and has a career high of 27 goals back in 2005-06 while skating for those same Oilers.

Daniel Sedin scored his team-leading 8th goal. Brother Henrik is first in the league with 12 assists. Before Dustin Penner’s wraparound goal – see the bad news below – Roberto Luongo threatened to go on his first shutout streak of the season. He looked solid, even intimidating, playing the day after beating Martin Brodeur’s New Jersey Devils 3-0.

The bad news – an old pattern resurfaces

Last year’s Canucks juggernaut was exceptionally proficient at putting the puck in the net. Unfortunately, whenever they went up early in a game, the team would collapse into a defensive shell and let the other guys come at them, wave after scary wave. No lead – whether one, two, three, even four goals! – no lead was safe as long as the forwards stopped pressing the hapless opposition.

Unlike Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff, the Oilers apparently watched those tapes. When the Canucks went up 3-0 on Tuesday night, they looked like an infinitely more experienced, composed squad and threatened to put the boots to these youngsters. Even when Andrew Cogliano surprised Andrew Alberts behind the Vancouver net, and Dustin Penner swept in a wraparound to make it 3-1, the Canucks should have taken it in stride. They should have pushed to answer. They should have done anything necessary to regain their three-goal advantage. Mikael Samuelsson, to name one, should have, I dunno, tried.

Instead, they treated Taylor Hall and Co with that respect usually reserved for untouchables like Sid the Kid, or elder statesmen like Nik Lidstrom and the Detroit Red Wings. They let these embryonic superstars skate unchallenged at poor Roberto Luongo. They dropped checks: Mason Raymond was actually the goat on that first Edmonton goal – he let Cogliano go unimpeded into the big Canucks D-man to jar the puck loose.

The Canucks panicked. When Gilbert Brule blew a laserbeam top shelf to tie the game at three, Vancouver fans had to be running endless mental film from last season’s blown leads against a truckload of teams. Hell, of last playoff’s blown leads against Chicago in particular.

Raffi Torres scored the winning goal on a lucky dribbler from just inside the blueline. Don’t get me wrong – a good team needs to win on a lucky goal once in a while, too. But great teams don’t need a horseshoe where the sun don’t shine – not when they’ve taken a 3-0 lead by halfway through the first period.


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Musings on game #9: Canucks 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

By Jason Kurylo:

A few thoughts on Tuesday’s 4-3 OT win over the Colorado Avalanche:

  • Secondary scoring has officially started to chip in. Last night’s goal scorers: Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Peter Schaefer and Jeff Tambellini. Although, come to think of it, can you call JT secondary scoring when he’s skating with the Sedins?
  • The Canucks did a good job to take advantage of the other team’s errors this night. The first goal came when an Avs breakout jumped off a stick. Tic-tac-Tambellini, it was in the net. Raymond’s overtime winner also came from a Colorado youngster making a boo-boo; as rookie D-man Jonas Holos started to take a faceoff win around the net, MayRay pokechecked the puck off his stick and past a startled Budaj. It’s good to see the team is starting to score ugly goals when the other guys goof up. Opportunistic plays equal winning ways in this league.
  • Manny Malhotra leads the Canucks in breakaways, with like a million of ‘em so far this season. Yes, that’s how the NHL.com stats page on missed breakaways reads: M. Malhotra: G 2, A 3, P 5, MBR like a million of ‘em. Anyway, he blew a glorious chance to win the game with five seconds left in regulation, booting the puck right into Budaj’s breadbasket. It was good to see him break out for two goals against the Wild, but he has got to start burying some of these prime chances.
  • Ryan Kesler is starting to look like Ryan Kesler. A goal, a crossbar, some intimidation of opposition centres, and a little levity in the intermission interview with Kristin Reid. Don’t worry, @KaptKatz, methinks your boy’ll be just fine.
  • Daniel Sedin looked dangerous every time he crossed the centre line, forcing Peter Budaj to make several excellent saves. He and Henrik assisted on Jeff Tambellini’s first period goal, extending Dank’s league-leading point streak to nine games. Unfortunately, the Sedins were also dangerous on defense – they were on the ice for all three of Colorado’s goals.
  • Team defense has to be an issue for Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff. If not for the goalkeeper on this night, the home squad would have left one game under .500 instead of one game over. More on him later.
  • Remember Andrew Alberts? The official goat of the 2009-2010 Canucks playoff exit? He hasn’t been part of the problem on D. Rather, the opposite: he has shown why he, and not Shane O’Brien, was kept on the roster – last night he logged a team-high 20:07 in even-strength ice time, and looked solid in doing so.
  • You can’t blame Roberto Luongo for the game going to OT. He put in a very strong performance, stopping 36 of 39 shots, quite a few in spectacular fashion. The three goals against included a perfect shot off the crossbar, a deflection by his own defenseman, and a last-minute defensive breakdown that left Matt Duchene with a tap-in at the lip of the crease. The Canucks owe their superstar goalie some of the same quality team defense they’ve show in front of Cory Schneider in his two starts.
  • Luongo’s post-game scrums are in danger of becoming interesting. After Raymond’s odd winner in OT, the netminder cracked a few jokes with reporters, including this gem: “I was getting jacked for another shootout, so I’m disappointed we won it in overtime.” Okay, you had to be there. Still, nice to see Bobby Lou smile without the weight of the captaincy on his shoulders.
  • Is it just me, or have we seen far more of Guillaume’s Desbiens, and a lot more of his DesCommecicommeça?
  • Peter Schaefer scored his first goal on a well-screened shot in the second period. He now has 99 NHL goals in his career. If he wants to hit triple digits, he’d better stop being invisible – Schaefer has done little to impress in his second tour of duty with the Canucks.
  • That entire fourth line, in fact, has been largely ineffective, and it’s clear that AV sees that. Schaefer, Desbiens and Tanner Glass combined for just over 17 minutes of ice time. Ten Canucks skated more than that individually. Between the three of these guys, they had one shot on goal, a weak wrister that happened to fool Budaj because of a great screen.
  • Avs blueliner John-Michael Liles got an assist in last night’s OT loss, tying him with Daniel Sedin for the longest points streak to start the season. More impressively, at nine games, he now has sole possession of the NHL record for consecutive games with assists to start a season. That’s right, in the storied careers of Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Bobby Orr, Rob Blake and Dennis Potvin, no D-man has ever had helpers in nine straight games to start a campaign. Hell, none of the forwards in Avs history – not Joe Sakic, not Peter Forsberg… – have started a season with this many games in the A column. Until now. Congratulations to JML, and to Avs fans. It’s always exciting to see history being made. Let’s hope the league pulls last year’s ad formula out of a drawer somewhere to make a commercial now that it’s actually true.
  • The Green Men have lost their lustre. Even fans sitting nearby look bored by their antics. Sorry boys, it was fun while it lasted, but when I tap my watch like this, it means your 15 minutes is up.

Follow Jason Kurylo on Twitter.

Subscribe to Jason’s podcast, Pucked in the Head, on iTunes. Episode 15 is an in-depth look at the Central Division, and includes many a joke at the expense of the aged Red Wings.

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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

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