Finally. NFL season is winding down and I can start paying attention to the situation in Canuckland.
The team has been on a roll obviously helped by a huge helping of home cooking (17 of the last 23 have been at GM Place). Living here amongst crazed Canuck fans can give you blinders to the reality of where the team actually stacks up in the West.
Versus the other seven Western Conference playoff teams so far the Nux are 11 wins and 9 losses--a decent, but not spectacular, record. What is troubling is two of those teams give the Canucks fits.
Firstly, Nashville after not having beaten the Canucks in three years at the Sommet Center had Martin Erat pot 3 for a 4-2 win on Dec. 8. The Canucks managed to get revenge 14 days later on home ice with a 4-1 win, but Jan. 11 the Preds took down the Canucks 3-2 in the Burrows vs. Auger fiasco. In both wins the Preds' netminders be it Pekka Rinne or Dan Ellis were oustanding.
The other bogey team has strangely been Calgary who own a 3W-1L record vs. the Canucks so far. How is that possible? Given the whole Dion Phaneuf-Jay Bouwmeester-Robyn Regehr defence troika has been average at best with the Lames giving up close to 30 shots per game, what is the deal? Well, simply put the Canucks have played poorly vs. the Flames.
On Jan. 9 they were outshot 40-21 and Roberto Luongo was the only reason they snagged a point by shoving the game to the shootout. (Check out shootout winning goal scorer Jamie Lundmark's take on how being on the farm in Abbotsford helped him in that shootout.)
Dec. 27 Mason Raymond was on fire scoring a hat trick and driving Miika Kiprusoff from the Flames' net in a 5-1 win at home.
Back in Oct. the Canucks lost twice to the Flames so we might chalk that up to Luongo being his usual Vesa Toskala in the first month.
The more ominous sign is the team is an incredibly average 10W-11L on the orad having played a fairly normal road schedule up till now. With the Olympics creating this hideous 8-game road trip prior to and the 6-game road trip afterwards, the season really will be made here. Currently the Canucks are 9 points ahead of the 9th-placed Detroit Red Wings.
Realistically, if the Canucks can tread water and maintain their record, or at least lose no more than 4 points in the standings, they should be fine given two-thirds of their games from Mar. 13 on are at home.
The crunch section of the pre-Olympic road trip is the Feb. 11-14 stretch where they play Florida and then the next night have to play Columbus and two days later play Minnesota in an afternoon game. Other than that there are two to three days off between games and all games are against Eastern teams (Canucks being 8W-1L vs. the Least) for the first six games of the trip.
The post-Olympic road trip is the doozy as all are against teams either in the playoffs out West or close to being in. There are two back-to-backs (Mar. 2 and 3 vs. Columbus and Detroit and Mar. 9 and 10 vs. Colorado and Phoenix). Toss in another afternoon game vs. tough Nashville on Mar. 7, two days after playing Chicago and keep your fingers crossed the team survives this trip.
There are positive signs overall, though. Mason Raymond is developing into a potential all-star. Pavol Demitra's return ("For how long?" asks Sami Salo) is also good news especially, if a trade is brewing as essentially Mikael Samuelsson and Demitra are the same player and either one could get the team some depth on the back end given the injury bug there.
Luongo is back to his usual new year's form meaning the glove hand only lets him down the lone game out of ten.
Christian Ehrhoff is a total steal and could finally be the Jyrkki Lumme meets Jeff Brown the team needs to go deep in the playoffs.
The Sedins, as the locals have been trumpeting, are finally truly elite players and they lead a power play that is one of the league's best.
Throw in Alexandre Burrows' scoring, diving and big mouth, and the Canuck drama is definitely worth watching over the second half.
And I haven't even mentioned Ryan Kesler who seems to be lost in the shuffle but is a future captain of this team.
Still there are some troubling signs bubbling under the whole deck of cards.
Coach Yogi Bear needs to play Andrew Raycroft way more mainly to give Luongo the needed rest. Playing your #1 goalie 60+ games is no recipe for playoff success even if Roberto would love to play as much as possible. I can't fathom why, since the playoffs don't have back-to-back games anymore, why Luongo needs to be playing both games of any back-to-backs. Even if the Canucks lose or split ever single back-to-back, in the end it'll pay off come May or June.
Burrows was probably right in pointing out how officials let grudges get in the way, but you just know he's now a marked man. That means he, and maybe the Canucks in general, won't get any marginal (or obvious!) calls, especially in the playoffs.
Which brings us to the undisciplined part of this team--it takes far too many penalties for a good team averaging over 15 minutes in the box a game with an average PK unit (although it has risen from truly terrible back at the start of the season).
Lastly, the team needs to be a lot stronger in second periods. This may be nitpicking but when San Jose and Chicago both lead the NHL in second period goals and Vancouver lies near the bottom, that is worrying. The record shows that when they trail after two, they are 4W-13L. Then again take solace, the Canucks are not the Leafs who are 0W-30L when trailing after two periods and no team in the NHL is close to .500 when trailing after two periods.
Yeah, I admit it's nitpicking but also something the team one hopes could work on during this road trip.
So, fare thee well, road warriors...and we'll see you all back on GM Place ice Mar. 13 vs. the Sens.