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 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