Canucks hoping for another strong road show

 

 
 
 
 
Andrew Ladd #16 of the Winnipeg Jets tries to check Radim Vrbata #17 of the Vancouver Canucks off the puck in NHL action on March, 24, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
 

Andrew Ladd #16 of the Winnipeg Jets tries to check Radim Vrbata #17 of the Vancouver Canucks off the puck in NHL action on March, 24, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Photograph by: Rich Lam, Getty Images

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The Vancouver Canucks have been better on the road this season than they have been at home, which is a trend they’ll have to continue if they want to protect their playoff position.

The Canucks are still sitting second in the Pacific Division with seven games remaining but their most recent homestand — 1-1-1 after losing 4-3 in overtime Saturday to the Dallas Stars — wasn’t much help.

They couldn’t put away either Colorado or Dallas, two teams sitting below the playoff bar, and now they face four teams above the playoff bar on their four-game journey through the Central Division.

It begins Monday night in St. Louis and then moves Tuesday into Nashville, Thursday to Chicago and Saturday afternoon to Winnipeg. Those teams were a combined 83 games above .500 when the Canucks boarded their charter Sunday morning for St. Louis. It’s scary stuff.

“I think we just have to worry about the first one,” said Canuck left winger Chris Higgins. “If you look at the trip as a whole, it’s pretty daunting with the teams we’re playing. So we’ll just worry about that game on Monday. You always want to start off the trip with a win so you can get your confidence going. Hopefully, we’ll do that.”

For Radim Vrbata, who netted his 30th goal of the season Saturday night and is emerging as the Canucks’ MVP, the trip is not about hope. It’s about need. The losses to Colorado and Dallas have pushed the Canucks into a sticky position. With a poor trip, coupled by a few Calgary and L.A. victories, they could find themselves below the playoff bar in no time.

“We have to get some wins on this road trip,” Vrbata stated. “We have to find points. If we don’t, we are going to be in trouble. We can’t be looking at what the other teams are doing. I think we are in a position where we can control our own (destiny) and we have to do that.

“That’s the season right there,” he continued. “I think every team we’re going to play is a really good team, a playoff team. There are now seven games left and every point and every game will be important.

“We’ve played everybody already so we know what to expect from St. Louis, we know what to expect from Nashville, Chicago and Winnipeg. So it’s more about us being ready for each and every game.”

The Canucks have an excellent record against the teams they are facing on the trip with the exception of Nashville. They have defeated the Blues twice, the Blackhawks twice and the Jets twice. But they have lost twice themselves to the Predators, beaten soundly by 3-1 and 5-1 margins.

The Canucks have been a confounding team all season. In the last five weeks, they have managed to lose to non-playoff teams Buffalo, Arizona (in a shootout), Columbus, Colorado and Dallas. During the same span, they have taken out the Blues, Ducks, Kings and Jets.

“I think our record is better against the teams we’re facing on this road trip than the ones outside the playoffs so I’m happy we’re playing the teams we are,” said Canuck captain Henrik Sedin. “I think it brings out the best in this group and it has all year. So it shouldn’t be any different now.”

One thing the Canucks will have going for them is a re-born power play. It has scored six times in the last five games, including the winning goal in Los Angeles on March 21 (Vrbata), the winning goal in Arizona the following day (Alex Edler), the tying goal against Winnipeg (Yannick Weber) and the late tying goal against Dallas on Saturday (Vrbata) that salvaged a point after the Canucks had squandered a 2-1 third-period lead.

Even the second-unit, which has been a black hole for most of the season, scored when Higgins deflected home a Dan Hamhuis one-timer. It was just the second power-play goal for Higgins. Saturday’s 2-for-3 performance boosted the Canucks’ power play to an 18.8 per cent efficiency rating, good enough to tie for 11th place (with Calgary) prior to Sunday’s slate of eight games.

The coaching staff has finally abandoned the four-forward concept and gone with the conventional three-forward/two defenceman set up. Edler and Weber are on the first unit, with Hamhuis and Chris Tanev on the second.

“I think it’s a different look for teams,” said Canuck head coach Willie Desjardins. “I don’t think they’ve seen that look as much so I don’t think they’re quite as prepared for it.”

Another positive Saturday was the impressive performance of the Higgins-Nick Bonino-Vrbata line. It was their fifth straight game together and they were easily the Canucks’ top unit against the Stars. They each scored a goal, although Higgins and Vrbata did tally on the power play, and they combined for 12 shots and 21 attempts.

“I’ve said it before, chemistry for me is big,” said Vrbata. “Now we’ve played together a couple of games and we kind of know about each other now. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

On the injury front, netminder Ryan Miller (knee) still isn’t ready to practise with the team even though he has been taking shots in full equipment from goalie coach Rollie Melanson and skills coach Glenn Carnegie. So Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, if he gets another chance, will have to continue to carry the load.

Lack is 8-4-1 in 13 decisions since Miller went down while Markstrom is 1-1-0.

“Seven games left,” summed up Lack. “We need at least a couple of wins on this road trip, for sure.“

Yes, they do.

ICE CHIPS: The Utica Comets, the Canucks’ American League farm team, are on a seven-game winning streak and were comfortably atop their division Sunday by 14 points. In their most recent victory, 4-2 victory Saturday over the Rockford IceHogs, Hunter Shinkaruk netted his 12th goal of the season and Joe Cannata made 37 saves between the pipes.

ESSENTIALS

RECENT RUN

The Canucks have lost two in a row for the first time since early March when they were beaten by San Jose and then Arizona in a shootout. They have not lost three in a row since early January. On the road, they have won three straight. The Blues are coming off a 4-2 loss at home Saturday to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They are 1-2-2 in their last five.

WHO’S HOT?

The Canuck power play is 6-for-13 in the last five games. … RW Radim Vrbata has 10 points in his last seven (5-5-10). … LW Daniel Sedin has nine points in his last seven (2-7-9). … C Henrik Sedin has five points in his last five (2-3-5). … D Yannick Weber also has five points in his last five (3-2-5). … Blues captain David Backes has 13 points in his last 13 games (5-8-13).

WHO’S NOT?

Canuck C Linden Vey has no points in 10 games and no goals in 17. … RW Jannik Hansen has no points in seven games and one goal in 13. … LW Ronalds Kenins has one assist in 10 and no goals in 16. … LW Shawn Matthias has no points in six and one goal (an empty-netter) in 13. … RW Derek Dorsett has no points in six. … Blues LW-C Steve Ott has one goal in 26.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Canucks have taken both meetings so far, winning 4-1 in St. Louis on Oct. 23 and 6-5 in a shootout at home March 1. The Canucks squandered a three-goal, third-period lead in the latter game before going 3-for-3 on Jake Allen in the shootout. The Canucks were out-shot 32-23 in the 4-1 win and 39-31 in the 6-5 victory. Their power play went 1-for-5 in the two games.

QUOTABLE

“It’s a big challenge with what we’ve got coming ahead with Chicago and Nashville and St. Louis. You can play good hockey in their buildings and not win. We have to play well and, hopefully, we’ll get something.” – Canuck head coach Willie Desjardins on the daunting four-game trip that also includes Winnipeg. The Canucks have won in St. Louis and Chicago this season, lost in Nashville and have yet to visit Winnipeg.

epap@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Andrew Ladd #16 of the Winnipeg Jets tries to check Radim Vrbata #17 of the Vancouver Canucks off the puck in NHL action on March, 24, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
 

Andrew Ladd #16 of the Winnipeg Jets tries to check Radim Vrbata #17 of the Vancouver Canucks off the puck in NHL action on March, 24, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Photograph by: Rich Lam, Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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