VANCOUVER — For 17 consecutive games, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Andrew Alberts had the three most dreaded words in hockey written beside his name: Did Not Dress.
That's the politically correct version, too. There are others less appealing ones like scratched, benched and getting the tap. Being a 'DND' means staying out late after practice to shoot on the backup goalie. It means another workout before the game and then having your shower prior to the puck drop, rather than following the final horn.
“I mean, it's no fun,” Alberts said Tuesday. “It was probably the most frustrating start to the season I've had. To be where I am now, it feels good.”
Alberts is where all players want to be at the start of playoffs, which is in the opening night lineup. Barring a last-second attack of influenza — you know, he opened up the door and in flew enza — Alberts will be on the Canucks' third pairing with rookie Frank Corrado for Game 1 Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1040).
Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault didn't even try to keep this one a secret. He may have parked Alberts 17 straight, and 24 overall, but he was singing his praises Tuesday. The 6-5, 218-pound Alberts has clearly snatched the third-pairing left-side job away from the luckless Keith Ballard.
“Andrew has been consistent in the last (10) games that he's played,” Vigneault said. “He's been physical, he's been good 1-on-1 and he's a big body. He gives us a big presence on defence and you combine him with Alex Edler and Jason Garrison and those are three big defencemen who can play the body and wear the other teams down. And that's part of the reason why he's in our lineup.”
Alberts, 31, never gave up hope even as he sat and sat and sat. The lockout-shortened season began Jan. 19 and his first appearance in the lineup was Feb. 24. He and Cam Barker were a duo on the fourth pairing, the one that never played. For Alberts, in the last year of a deal in which he made a prorated $1.225 million, his career was flashing before his eyes.
“Obviously when you're not playing, you start to think ‘Geez, what's going to happen in my future?' but I knew I could play in this top six,” he said. “We had eight solid defencemen at the beginning of the year. That's the way things were. But I knew I could contribute and that's what I kept telling myself. Stay positive, come to the rink every day to work hard, and it will take you a long way.
“I think I've played my best hockey lately. It's a little frustrating if you get some weak goals scored on you in weird situations but, beyond that, I think I'm playing my best. I'm seeing the ice well, making the smart play and getting the puck out.”
Ballard, meanwhile, was attempting to keep his chin up despite another pummelling to his psyche. Clearly Vigneault isn't comfortable with him on the right side and prefers to deploy Corrado there. The latter has played all of three games in the NHL and the last two weren't in meaningful situations.
“If I don't end up playing, it's disappointing, yes,” nodded Ballard. “But there is a lot bigger stuff going on right now. We have a real legitimate chance here to do something special. And no one says if you don't play Game 1, you don't play at all. I'm kind of taking the mindset if they need me down the road, I'd better be ready, do well and, hopefully, contribute.”
Ballard still has two years remaining on his contract at $4.2 million and it's more than likely he'll be moved along this summer, probably through a compliance buyout, with the salary cap coming down by $6 million. When he was first scratched two seasons ago, it raised eyebrows. Now it surprises no one. He maintains he'll be a good soldier until the end, whether it's bitter or sweet.
“I don't think it's difficult being professional,” he stated. “I've had some practice.”
Lots of it.
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