Canucks’ five burning issues approaching the playoffs
We whittle down the five key factors facing Vancouver as the NHL post-season looms
VANCOUVER — There is a week remaining in the NHL’s regular season, which means there is a week plus a few days remaining before the second season begins. It’s the only one that matters in cities where contenders reside and hopes are high.
We’re talking playoffs. Not games against the out-of-it Predators, Avalanche and Flames, but playoffs. Real man stuff where blood is spilled, teeth are lost, shoulders separated and over-reacting to everything becomes the norm. Sure, hockey is only a game but that doesn’t stop people from becoming hysterical if their team fails to meet expectations.
With that in mind, what are the biggest issues facing the Vancouver Canucks, who are on the verge of clinching their playoff spot, as they take another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup? We bring you five:
Does Cory Schneider have the right stuff? The Canucks made the decision a year ago to move ahead with Schneider and now the time has come for the redhead from Marblehead, Mass., to prove it was the correct one. Schneider’s start to the regular season on Jan. 19 could not have gone worse. He surrendered five goals on 14 shots to the Anaheim Ducks and was wearing a ball cap by 6:37 of the second period. Hardly a stellar debut as the anointed No. 1 puck stopper. (His third period Thursday in Dallas was eerily similar.)
Schneider rebounded superbly from the Anaheim disaster and worked his way back to a spot among the league leaders in save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts before the debacle in Dallas. There is every reasonable expectation Schneider will again be able to find his top form for the playoffs but, if not, looming large is the presence of Roberto Luongo.
What if Schneider begins the post-season the same way he began the regular season, or played the third period against the Stars? Will he be on a short leash, or a long leash? If Luongo is called upon, does he play out of his mind and win back the starting job? Would he even be afforded that opportunity, unless there is an injury situation?
Canucks goaltending has always been among Vancouver’s favourite soap operas and it’s not hard to fathom Luongo somehow being inserted into a few scenes before the curtain comes down on his time in Vancouver. It’s the story that keeps on giving.
2. RYAN KESLER FACTOR:
There is no other skater on the roster who brings as many elements to a game like the 28-year-old centre. He can be used in an offensive role on the power play and in a shutdown role defensively. He is the Canucks’ top faceoff man, kills penalties and is a weapon off the rush with his wicked wrist shot. You want feisty play? He can bring that, too.
Kesler almost single-handedly destroyed the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, a series in which he either scored or assisted on 11 of Vancouver’s 14 goals in the six-game victory. That was three surgeries ago, however. Since that time, Kesler has had operations on a hip, shoulder and wrist, not to mention his recent broken foot.
He was lame (hip) in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins and lame again (shoulder, wrist) in last April’s first-round loss to the eventual champion L.A. Kings.
The Canucks couldn’t win with him wounded so the question, of course, is can a seemingly healthy Kesler again be the player of the Nashville series? Can he again rise to a level whereby opposing coaches have to put their best defencemen against his line, rather than the Sedins, which then opens things up for Daniel and Henrik?
Fatigue certainly shouldn’t be an issue. Assuming Kesler doesn’t miss any more time in the final week, he will have played just 17 games in a full calendar year. It’s hard to be any fresher than that.
3. SPECIAL TEAMS:
After a poor start to the season on the penalty kill, and a terrible middle of the season on the power play, the Canucks seem to have both units functioning well down the stretch. The penalty killers have held their opponents to one goal in the last 31 attempts.
The power play, meanwhile, is on a 6-for-24 run, a far cry from the wretched 2-for-50 performance over the 20-game stretch from Feb. 22-April 1. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Derek Roy joined the team on April 4 and Kesler returned from his broken foot two games later.
Kesler, with his right-hand shot and ability to unleash bullet one-timers, opens things up elsewhere as opponents have to respect his threatening presence. The Sedin twins have nine power-play points between them with Roy in the lineup.
Kesler also brings a faceoff element to the first unit, taking some of the pressure off Henrik Sedin to win draws on both sides of the ice. If the opposition plans to run amok and goon the twins, a thriving power play might make them think twice. (By the way, one thing we’d like to see deleted from the playbook is Alex Edler’s two-zone drop pass on the PP break-ins.)
Are the Canucks rugged enough to withstand the assaults of brutes like St. Louis centre David Backes, L.A. right winger Dustin Brown and their ilk? Can they give as good as they get? The Canucks aren’t built like the Kings and Blues but neither is the current edition of the Chicago Blackhawks, or the many recent editions of the tremendously successful Detroit Red Wings. If you have the puck more than the other guys, they’re doing the chasing and the hitting, not you.
Granted, the Canucks’ last two playoff losses — to the Bruins in the 2011 final and the Kings in the 2012 opening round — were to bigger, physical teams. But this season, the big, bad Kings were unable to beat the Canucks in regulation or overtime in three tries.
Their sole victory came via shootout. The Canucks outscored the Kings 8-4 in their three meetings.
The big, bad Blues? They, too, were unable to dispatch the Canucks in regulation or overtime in three tries, winning twice by shootout. In two of the three meetings, the Canucks had played the night before. The Blues’ power play went 0-for-9 in the three meetings.
Add ’em up and the Canucks took nine of 12 points from the Kings and Blues. Meanwhile, they have only one point out of a possible 10 against the Sharks and Red Wings — with another two points against Detroit up for grabs Saturday night.
You can also count the mighty Blackhawks as another team unable to beat the Canucks in either regulation or overtime this season. Both meetings so far have resulted in shootouts, one victory for each team, with the third meeting going Monday at Rogers Arena.
So whom should the Canucks fear the most? The rugged or the skilled?
5. HEALTH AND WELFARE:
Injuries are shrouded in secrecy at the best of times and playoffs are the worst of times for truth about the wounded.
This much we know: right-side defencemen Kevin Bieksa (lower body) and Chris Tanev (ankle) are hurting. So is left-winger Chris Higgins (knee). The latest news from the Ministry of Information is that they may all be ready for Game 1. If they’re on the ice practising with their teammates by April 29, that will be the best indicator. We also know David Booth (ankle surgery) probably won’t be back for a long while, if at all. And who knows how many others are playing at less than 100 per cent? Or may go down in the final week?
The only position where the Canucks should feel completely protected is between the pipes. An injury to either Henrik Sedin or Kesler — again — would be devastating even with Derek Roy in house to fill a centre spot. An injury to Daniel Sedin, despite his low goal total this season, would be almost as troubling, a fact that became apparent last spring when the Canucks fell behind 3-0 in the series to the Kings without Daniel.
Every team can cite injuries as a major concern, but this isn’t about any team. It’s about the Canucks and their 42-year quest to win a Stanley Cup.
The drama will begin unfolding — and the issues answered — soon enough.
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