So far, the Canucks lack killer instinct to succeed on a nightly basis
And the interesting defensive pairings don't seem to be helping matters much
VANCOUVER — On paper, where hockey is played by fantasy drafters and poolies, the San Jose Sharks’ lineup of weapons is quite deep enough to get the full attention of a team that is still drawing names out of a hat to figure out who plays on defence — and with whom.
On the ice, it hasn’t always worked out that way. A squad that sprinted out of the gate to seven wins in a row just as astonishingly lost nine of its next 10, somehow squandering, in the meantime, all that offensive punch and scraping the bottom of the National Hockey League’s goals-for barrel.
“It’s somewhere in that locker-room,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “Obviously, if we had the ability to do it early and start the way we did, it’s there.
“But things change over time, teams get their systems in place, guys get their legs going again, and there is going to be some catch-up that’s done.”
So naturally, two guys who hadn’t a goal between them this season, Scott Gomez and Adam Burish, put the first two past Cory Schneider in the Vancouver Canucks net Tuesday night, and as little resistance as the home side was putting up at that point, who knew how many more might end up behind Schneider if the Thorntons, Marleaus, Pavelski, and Coutures rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
The Canucks, meanwhile, were working through the full range of permutations and combinations on their blue-line, doing the same faintly frenetic tap dance that they seem destined to be doing until Kevin Bieksa returns.
It’s not often in his career that the high-risk, high-reward Bieksa has been referred to as the missing piece that could really settle things down in the Canucks’ back end.
But the 31-year-old rearguard’s value to the team has never been more sharply defined than through this last stretch of five games, four of which he has missed with groin problems.
The one he played, the Canucks beat the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings, convincingly. The four he missed — in Detroit, at home to Phoenix, in Calgary, and this one against San Jose — they lost by an aggregate score of 19-9.
Tuesday night, in between outbreaks of high-speed pond hockey that included some really breathtaking sequences by the Canucks, a game that could have ended in a lopsided win for either team left both defences panting, and offered a strong case for the good old tie, in which nothing is settled but both teams — and the fans, too — leave happy.
Instead, as has so often been the case, the Canucks couldn’t apply the coup de grace, either in regulation time or the extra five minutes, and ended up losing 3-2 in a shootout, Couture finishing it off.
The Canucks showed plenty of moxie and speed, lots of effort, and no doubt deserved better after battling back from 0-2 down to tie it on goals by Henrik Sedin and Jannik Hansen.
Defensively, too, it was a gritty effort by the home team, after starting without Bieksa, again, and then losing the beleaguered Keith Ballard to a charley horse in the third period, and still making it to the finish line.
Things almost got considerably scarier in the first period when Chris Tanev, the lone remaining right-hand-shooting defenceman in Bieksa’s absence, took a Michal Handzus shot off the outside of the right knee while trying to clean up a bad turnover by his defence partner of the moment, Alex Edler.
But after a quick trip to the dressing room, he returned and, though he looked all-in at times as the game wore on, he and Edler and Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison — with an occasional shift from Cam Barker — withstood the Sharks’ incursions well enough.
But who’s kidding whom? The healthier Bieksa returns, the better for the team — as long as he comes back to stay. If he returns too soon, as it appears he did against L.A., and the groin keeps flaring up again and again, as groins are wont to do, then the Vancouver blue-line is going to be a daily grab-bag of mix-em, match-em hunches and more experimentation.
“First thing that comes to mind is (losing a) right-handed defenceman, it’s a lot easier playing a right-hander and a left-hander together, for those D-to-D passes,” head coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged. “The competitiveness he brings on a nightly basis, he’s a strong, aggressive, tough player to play against, he moves the puck well and defends well, so he’s been one of our most consistent defencemen.”
He does, however, dispute the notion that Bieksa came back too soon, or that he could have done more harm to himself by playing Saturday.
“It’s like any other injury: at the end of the day, the player and the staff talk it over, and he might feel he’s 100 per cent and he’s ready to go — or sometimes he’s not 100 per cent but he feels he can play through it — and you never know how it’s going to turn out,” Vigneault said.
“In Kevin’s case he was fine (against L.A.), he played real well, he was quick, he was strong one on one, and then towards the end of the game, one hit, one push, he felt it again, finished that game, didn’t think anything of it. Next morning, got up, it felt stiff.”
Despite four losses in their last five outings, and the tenuousness of their hold on the Northwest Division lead, it is too early to say the Canucks have lost their way, because (a) only the Detroit game was a real stinker, and (b) there’s pretty much a game every second night, and in the mood-swingy, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment of a shortened season, redemption may be just around the next bend.
The next bend arrives in Columbus on Thursday, then weaves through Minnesota and back to Columbus, one of those road trips the scribes won’t be fighting over ... but the Canucks can’t afford to be picky.
With or without Bieksa, and Ballard, whichever names come out of the hat will have to pair up, two by two, and weather this little squall.
And hope it doesn’t blow up into something bigger.
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