Canucks coming up short in game of grinding giants
Vancouver again forced to fight above its weight class in playoff trenches, where size matters
Defenceman Andrew Alberts of the Vancouver Canucks (right) tries to check centre Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks off the puck during Game 1 of the NHL Western Conference quarter-final series between the Canucks and Sharks at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Wednesday, May 1, 2013.
Photograph by: Rich Lam, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — A month after the Vancouver Canucks tried to acquire Raffi Torres and Ryane Clowe at the National Hockey League trading deadline, we found out why.
Well, it was more a confirmation than a discovery Wednesday because there really was nothing new about the Canucks’ 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks in the teams’ opening game of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Canucks didn’t do enough to force their way to the net and create havoc and second and third scoring chances. Vancouver scored one greasy goal, which is rarely enough in the playoffs.
Size matters. And the Canucks don’t have much of it among their top nine forwards — the guys whose minutes decide games.
With largely the same lineup, the Canucks are 1-7 in playoff games since getting within a victory of claiming the Stanley Cup two years ago. Alas, that lone win came during a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings last year, rather than in Games 6 or 7 against the Bruins in 2011.
The Canucks, one of the NHL’s highest-scoring teams over the last five regular seasons, have 11 goals during their eight-game struggle. Including the first five games against brawny Boston, it’s 17 goals in 13 playoff games.
The Kings, big and powerful, destroyed opponents during a 16-4 rampage to the Stanley Cup last spring. The Bruins bullied their way past the Canucks to win Lord Stanley’s beer bowl the previous year. In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup with a team that was as intimidating as it was skilled, sprinkled throughout with heavy, powerful forwards who stormed the net. Those Blackhawks also eliminated the Canucks.
Do you see a trend here?
The Canucks obviously did, albeit belatedly, when they tried to bulk up at the deadline but were outbid on Torres (by the Sharks) and Clowe (by the New York Rangers).
Instead, needing another centre to have any chance of winning, the Canucks got smaller with the acquisition of 5-foot-9 Derek Roy.
So when Vancouver and San Jose line up Friday for Game 2 (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1040), the Sharks will be on average two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier across the first two forward lines.
San Jose, which has a second line of Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and TJ Galiardi that is 19 feet tall, averages 6-foot-2½ and 211 pounds on the top two lines. Vancouver averages a half-inch over six feet and 192 pounds. Torres, who led everyone with six hits in Game 1, skates on a San Jose third line that even with 5-foot-11 centre Joe Pavelski is marginally bigger than Vancouver’s third unit.
As they practised Thursday, the Canucks had only two top-nine forwards more than 200 pounds. The Sharks have only three who are less than 200.
Obviously, size isn’t much good without skill and determination driving it. But the Canucks are fighting above their weight class yet again.
“Look at our goal and their goals, too (in Game 1),” Canucks winger Danny Sedin said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s getting guys in front of the net and getting to rebounds. It’s tough, but it’s what you have to do.
“No question we can get to the net. It’s more about how you play. We want to get pucks to the D-men, then get to the net. Right now, we’re working so hard at retrieving pucks and when we get them and throw them to the Ds, it’s so hard to get to the net from the corner. We need someone in front of the net all the time who gets position. It’s tough to get there, but once you’re there it’s easy.”
Canucks winger Chris Higgins said the team has discussed the need to drive through defenders.
“When we got shots, it was a rare thing that we got the puck for a second opportunity, and it’s the second and third opportunities that are most dangerous because the coverage starts to collapse,” Higgins said.
“You don’t need to be a big guy to get to the front. Look at Burr (190-pound teammate Alex Burrows). He scores most of his goals from five feet out and he’s not the biggest guy or most physically imposing guy. It’s about your willingness to win those puck battles.”
Asked last week if he felt general manager Mike Gillis had provided the coach all the players he needed, considering the failed trade mission involving $5.33-million backup goalie Roberto Luongo, Alain Vigneault smiled and said it was a good question.
“Because of my relationship with Mike and Laurence and Lorne (assistant GMs Gilman and Henning), I’m always up-to-date on what’s going on,” Vigneault said.
“I know everything management did to try to improve this team. Because I know all the facts, I’m very happy with the team I have.”
And he’s happy now to have Luongo, who was spectacular in the first period Wednesday and will start again Friday because of the mysterious injury to Cory Schneider.
But the Canucks need much more than Luongo.
Their failure lately to win playoff games — and especially their inability to generate goals or a consistent physical presence in front of the opposition net — is defining the Canucks.
They need a victory that refutes the idea they’re not big enough or tough enough on the top three lines.
The greatest playoff wins in franchise history were not in Conference or Cup finals, but in the first round.
Their cathartic Game 7 victory against the Calgary Flames in 1994 redefined the franchise, just as the Canucks’ triumph over the Blackhawks at the same stage of the 2011 playoffs broadened the horizon for the team and made possible what was thought to be almost impossible.
The Canucks need to prove they can still win in the playoffs with a lineup based mostly on skill and speed up front.
But they can’t wait for another Game 7 because this series should be over if they lose Game 2 Friday night.
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