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: Canucks are in unfamiliar territory heading down the stretch.

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With nineteen games remaining in the compressed NHL Regular Season, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in unfamiliar territory heading to the homestretch. The NW Division Title, a foregone conclusion the last few seasons currently belongs to the red hot Minnesota Wild, and the Canucks currently find themselves battered, bruised and in a sixth seed position, only four points secured of a playoff spot.

As the Canucks head into a three games in four nights road trip to Phoenix, LA and Colorado, wins are critical to keep any hope of winning the NW Title once again and to do so, the Canucks will have to do so with a makeshift lineup, as forwards Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Chris Higgins, Steve Pinizzoto, Zack Kassian and possibly Tom Sestito will all miss the first game tonight against the Coyotes.

Feel sorry for the Canucks? One can, but ask any Ottawa Senators fan if it’s possible to watch key player after key player go down with injury, and still maintain a level of success. Easy? Not a chance, but the Senators are doing what many said was impossible, keeping their playoff spot and looking mighty impressive in the process, showing that great coaching, veteran leadership and spot on team system play can lead to overall team success.

The Canucks, in my opinion, have had it far too easy, for far too long, often coasting down the homestretch of the season, a playoff spot and home ice a foregone conclusion. The biggest key, many March and early April evenings was wondering if the Canucks could find a level of desperation required to match a much more desperate hockey club, needing wins and points to keep their own playoff hopes alive. It burned Vancouver last season, running into a desperate LA Kings club who had been forced into playoff mode 6-8 weeks before Vancouver. We all know how that story played out.

Like any Canuck fan, it’s great to see the team play President’s Trophy caliber hockey, winning game after game and planning playoff parties in March. This year will require more effort, determination and a commitment to playing a sound team game for this club to not only have playoff success, but to guarantee a playoff spot come late April. In my opinion, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world that could happen. I would much rather see this team have to fight and claw now, while wounded, knowing a healthy Kesler et al will be coming to help with the cause as the season winds down.

GM Mike Gillis has been reportedly working hard to acquire a player or two that can help this team down the homestretch, with the trade deadline less than two weeks away. If the Canucks can find a way to battle through this adversity set in front of them now, they may be in a better position for success when it matters most, six weeks from now, than they were coasting to a first round desperate opponent they faced one year ago.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

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


 

Raymond Kirk: Canucks are finding themselves consistently inconsistent.

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Eighteen games into the 2013 season, the Vancouver Canucks have shown me two things so far that are of great relief and yet deep concern as a fan of this hockey club. When on their game, they are every bit as lethal and deserving of being regarded as one of the league’s best teams, and when they are off their game, save for the mostly sensational goaltending they have received night in and night out this year, they are average, at best.

Back-to-back President’s Trophy winning seasons were well earned by the Canucks; however, from almost the midpoint of last season, this club showed us the maddeningly frustrating side of them, relying on pure skill that would only show itself for brief stretched and sublime goaltending to win more hockey games than they would lose. Good enough to coast away with a sizable lead in the mediocre at best Northwest Division, but obviously not good enough to compete and win against the best clubs when it mattered most, being unceremoniously dumped by the LA Kings in round one of the 2012 playoffs. The Kings, who played inspired sixty minute hockey for the last quarter of the season, rode that complete sixty minute game all the way to a Stanley Cup Championship, and the Vancouver faithful were left to once again wonder “what if?”

There is no question that this Canucks team is deep, with a well of riches up front, on the blueline and between the pipes that would leave many a team envious. Yet the Canucks are beginning, in my eyes, to trouble me with trying to establish just what the identity of this hockey club is? It is not an old club, by any stretch, yet the core has been around for seemingly forever, and it is too much of veteran team to not be able to play sixty solid minutes on a consistent basis. The only good stretch of the season came in a spell a couple of weeks ago when they were able to put together a winning streak, mostly against Northwest Division clubs who have a hard enough time getting out of their own way. Even through that streak you would be hard pressed to find many full sixty minute efforts in which the team’s skill and will were at an even level.

Much has been made of this team needing to ‘turn on the switch’ and compete when it matters most. I’ve been of the opinion that over the last couple of seasons, without another real contender to push the Canucks for the Northwest title, the team has settled into playing ‘comfortable’ hockey, not really needing to find a level of desperation in their game to fight for a division title, let alone a playoff spot.

Too many games see this team fall asleep for long stretches of a game, appearing lost out of the gate, or storming out quickly, grabbing a lead, and then laying off the gas pedal and depending on either Luongo or Schneider to bail them out game after game. When they are on their game, they are fast enough, skilled enough and deep enough to hang with anyone in the league, yet this is beginning to happen with less frequency.

At 10-4-4 it’s not time to push the panic button on this season, yet the schedule has been relatively easy. By comparison, the roster has been fairly healthy, and enough games have been played for everybody to be out of training camp mode. Yet the record, in my eyes, should be much better and the wins gained should be much more impressive. They’ve had just one win in regulation this year against a Western Conference foe that made the playoffs last season. That’s it, that’s all. And that’s of concern to me. With home games coming up against two Western teams who made the post season last year in the Phoenix Coyotes and the defending Champion LA Kings, it is time for the Canucks to not only show us, but themselves, just why no one should forget why they are considered an elite team in the first place. Elite teams should not need to be pushed to find their A game, so it’s time to put up or shut up to show why they should still be in that conversation.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Raymond Kirk: Kesler the key to long term success, despite two losses since his return.

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Ryan Kesler: Photo: CBC.ca

The record may only be 0-1-1 in the two games since Ryan Kesler made his much anticipated 2013 Vancouver Canucks debut, coming off of shoulder and wrist injuries, yet the effect he has already had and will continue to make is significant to the Canucks and their aspirations of chasing Lord Stanley this spring.

There may be a lot of talk about the Sedin twins, the depth of goaltending, the offense from defence, overall team depth, but in my opinion, a healthy Ryan Kesler is the piece that makes the whole puzzle work. You need to look no further than the 2011 playoffs, when Kesler all but took the team on his back for long stretches in Round 2 against the Nashville Predators, and Round 3 against the San Jose Sharks before he was injured yet again, and was not the same force because of it in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Kesler, when healthy, is arguably one of the very best two-way players in the NHL, and could very well have added a Conn Smythe trophy to his Selke award. He is the heart and soul of the hockey team when healthy and on his game, and after only two games, his presence has been significant, in helping make a listless powerplay not only effective, but looking dangerous at the same time. His faceoff game has been sorely missed, especially now with the loss of Manny Malhotra for the rest of the season. Kesler will continue to take big minutes as he works himself into game shape against the best forwards in the world, and in doing so, will cause opposing Head Coaches to game plan against him, which will open up even more opportunities for the Sedin twins against different defensive pairings. There is not one Canuck that can bring all the tools to the table that Kesler possesses when he is on top of his game, and that just makes a tough team even tougher to play against. A fresh and healthy Kesler will be critical for the Canucks to make a deep run in the postseason this year, and seeing a fresh, healthy and motivated RK17 in mid February is great news for this organization.

It will take time for the team to adjust to having Kesler in the lineup, and determine just who will be most effective to play with him. The Sedins and Burrows to me are a lock to stay together, as the old adage goes, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” Myself, now knowing that it sounds like David Booth is ready to make his own season debut on Tuesday against the red hot Blackhawks, I would like to see the reunion of “The AMEX Line” with Booth, Kesler and Higgins skating together. It’s impossible to say just what kind of impact Booth can have without playing a game yet this season, but this line has familiarity on its side, and has displayed good chemistry in the past and I feel can be just as effective once again.

This would allow Jordan Schroeder and Mason Raymond to continue to play together, and I would like to see Zack Kassian get a shot on the wing with these two. Kassian has hit a bit of a wall in the last week or so, and needs to rediscover the aspects of his game that had him the toast of the city in late January. he is a big body, better hands than I expected and, although not as fast as Schroeder or Raymond, can move well for a big man, and if he plays to his strengths, I think he could open up a lot of ice for the speedy duo who have been nothing short of a pleasant surprise this young season. Raymond has to be hands down Canucks comeback player of the year at this point, and this trio could potentially be one of the most dangerous third lines in the NHL.

The unfortunate victim of lineup depth in this equation is Jannik Hansen, as I would see him on a fourth line with Max Lapierre, and take your pick of Dale Weise and Aaron Volpatti. Hansen is such a coup for this organization I feel, as he is speedy enough to play with top six forwards, is a tenacious forechecker and can chip in offensively. It does not seem fair to see him “wallowing” on a fourth line, but this is the price you play to play for an organization that has aspirations of winning it all, and not just making it to the playoffs. You need a forward like Jannik Hansen, that almost everyone in the league would love on their second or third line, to provide that depth and hustle to the lineup. To allow your Head Coach to effectively roll four lines, and not just when you are up or down by two or three goals in the third period. And if things are not going well, like stretches last evening, the Head Coach has the luxury to mix and juggle lines, and have effective players take key minutes, on any given night, to give your team the best chance to win.

For a team with a 8-3-3 record, it has been a frustrating season at times for Canucks fans, with, inconsistencies in the overall game, not possessing a killer instinct with a lead, and a defence that seems to make the game much more difficult than it needs to be. The fact that the record is what it is, is a testament to the remarkable goaltending the team has received, from both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, and also to the depth that this franchise has, that many other teams simply do not. A healthy Ryan Kesler can make this a much more dangerous hockey team as it heads into the second quarter of this shortened season.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.


Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233