Friday, April 22, 2011

By The Numbers

Much of the blame of the Vancouver Canucks' collapse in this series is on the shoulders of our defense and Roberto Luongo as it should be. Yet why should we be surprised by this?

If we just look at the raw stats of Game 4s, 5s and 6s of the past three seasons (albeit Game 6 has yet to be played in 2011), there is a very disturbing pattern on the backline:
Alexander Edler 1G 2A -6
Christian Ehrhoff 1G 2A -7
Kevin Bieksa 2G 4A -1
Sami Salo 1G 1A -6

Bieksa is the only one who matches up well offensively with the Chicago Blackhawks' Norris Trophy defenceman Duncan Keith. That's in the past, though, as Bieksa did not record a single point in Game 4 or 5 this year.

The Blackhawks' back end has been terrific and although Keith gets the headlines, it's really Brian Campbell who has proven his mettle in all three series. Just look at that whopping +10. Talk about your shutdown defenceman with a huge offensive contribution as well. His play alone may explain the lack of production from the Canucks' second and third lines:

Duncan Keith 3G 5A +3
Brent Seabrook 1G 1A +2
Brian Campbell 1G 7A +10

Obviously, a defenceman's plus/minus is affected by how well the goalie behind him (and the backchecking or lack of by the forwards, of course) is playing. We all know about Roberto Luongo's struggles but Chicago's rotating set of goalies (Nikolai Khabibulin in '09, Antti Niemi in '10 and now Corey Crawford in '11) prove that it's not about the big money goalies when it comes to playoff success. Over the same sets of Games 4 through 6 in '09 and '10 and Games 4 and 5 in '11 here are the save percentages:

Roberto Luongo .849 225 shots faced
Corey Schneider .905 21 shots faced

Chicago goalies .917 216 shots faced

On average Chicago has outshot Vancouver over those particular eight games by three shots a game. So it's not like the Canucks are not getting an equal share of chances, but look at the offensive output in these key latter Games 4 through 6 by the forwards who have been the core players the past three seasons.

Daniel Sedin 3G 2A -6
Henrik Sedin 1G 5A -9
Alexandre Burrows 1G 3A -3
Ryan Kesler 1G 1A -3
Mason Raymond 1G 1A -2
Mikael Samuelsson 2G 1A -5

Jonathan Toews 4G 4A +3
Patrick Kane 9G 2A +3
Patrick Sharp 3G 7A +3
Marian Hossa 2G 3A +4
David Bolland 6G 4A +4
Troy Brouwer 1G 1A +3

Obviously, we could throw in Dustin Byfuglien's production to further paint a horrid picture but we're looking at players who have played in all three series so bear with me. Now we all know Burrows and Kesler were harboring injuries in '10 but where have they been both in '09 and '11?
Don't even get me started on the over 30-year-olds in the Twinkies who are proving almost as poor in the clutch in playoffs as Markus Naslund was.

Finally, I hate talking about officiating as the majority of games are played at 5-on-5 and the whole special teams being sooooo important gets overplayed. The trouble is in some series it can be a factor and it looks like it has been in all the Canucks vs. Hawks series.
Over these particular eight games we are looking at, the powerplays for each team are 33 to 28 in Chicago's favor. Basically a half a powerplay edge per game to Chicago over the eight games. Doesn't sound like much but it really is as the Hawks scored 13 times with those man advantages in this specific game sample set. The Canucks have a paltry 7 goals on the powerplay over the same set.

So, as simple as it is to point out, we may as well: Stay out of the box and do better on the powerplay. That may be enough to swing whatever mind-meld control the Hawks have over Luongo (and his as usual slow glove hand) as well as the Canucks' top two lines weak offensive output (we won't even mention their defensive shortcomings again as that'd be piling on).

Can this team execute that simple game plan? That is the Game 6 question come Sunday because having faith in the stars' abilities to raise their collective game is something the past has shown us is not quite worth having faith in.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again?

With the Vancouver Canucks getting Bollanded by the tune of 7-2 in Game 4, should the Canuck fan base be worried?

Not really, even if the Canucks should lose Game 5 tonight.
Given there have been only three times in NHL history that a team has come back from 0-3 down to take a seven-game series and that those incidents occurred at least 32 years apart in each case, well, place your bets on Chicago at your own peril.

Yes, the Philadelphia Flyers did it last season over the Boston Bruins, but the odds of the Hawks even tying up this series are . . . Hey, wait, didn't the Blackhawks reel off three straight wins last season after the Canucks went up 2-1 in the series?

Oh, never mind, we're going to a Game 7 I guess. Maybe one of those UVic rabbits can lend me a foot.

Friday, April 15, 2011

OK, Boys, Smooth and Silky Passes

If any of you caught the excellent Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes Game 1, you may have caught this ad.
Now we know the real reason behind the Wings' success--soft smooth silky skin (and Don Saleski '70s style haircuts).
Think I'll shine this up with some Dove

Game 1 Deju Vu All Over Again

Canucks win Game 1! The team dominates! Our third liners (Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen) come through! Luongo is a potential Conn Smythe winner! The goalposts are our friends!

Sound familiar?

Well, Game 1 in 2010 vs. the Chicago Blackhawks went much the same way. The Vancouver Canucks won 5-1. Michael Grabner and Kyle Wellwood got two of those five goals. They were also outshot 37-25 so Luongo pretty much repeated his Game 1 performance of 2010 in 2011.

Strip this down and it came down to the Canucks getting out of the gate fast, but if they think they can take the Stanley Cup by only playing one excellent period per game, well, good luck with that.
The bottom line is for once Roberto Luongo did what he has supposed to have been doing the past two seasons--stealing games with his goaltending (and friendly goalposts). Given Chicago dominated the last two periods the Canucks are not exactly sitting any prettier than in 2010 or 2009 when they took Game 1s vs. the Hawks.

Worrying is the virtual no-show by the Sedin line which had all of six shots on goal. Yes, they had less ice time, but if the play of Ryan Kesler does not prove once and for all who the real MVP of the team is, then I suggest you return your Volvo to the dealership.

Then apparently there is much ado over how much ice time the Hawks players had especially in comparison to Vancouver's skaters.
Newsflash, hockey fans: When a team is losing, coaches tend to play their top players more. It's not like they weren't fairly fresh going into Game 1 that they couldn't handle it.

The ploy actually worked as the Hawks outshot the Nux 25-20 over the last two periods.
Sure, they didn't score but sometimes Luongo shuts teams out.

Good game all around from an entertainment standpoint but wait till Game 4 before we see where the Canucks stand.

It's Game 4 in both 2009 and 2010 where the Blackhawks took control of both series.
In 2009 Vancouver had a shot at going up 3-1 on Chicago in the series. They took a 1-0 lead and went to the rope-a-dope move (they generated just 15 shots the entire game) only to see Chicago score with less than three minutes left and win it in overtime.
In 2010, Chicago was up 2-1 in the series and Luongo melted down giving up 6 goals on 33 shots in the 7-4 loss before the final meltdown in Game 6 (a 5-1 loss and a trip to the golf course).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Lameduck President's Trophy

Woo hoo, the Vancouver Canucks finish first overall!

Thank you, Northwest Division for making this feat possible and after the clinching the Canucks racked up a scary 16 wins and 4 losses vs. the four non-playoff teams in "our" division.

The Detroit Red Wings, on the other hand, could only manage a 10 win 11 loss record up to that point vs. its division. The San Jose Sharks were a tad better at 11 wins and 8 losses vs. their own division through April Fools' Day.

Insert your own counter argument here in either the Wings' or Sharks' odds of finishing first overall, if they were able to feast on arguably the four weakest teams in the Western Conference a la the Canucks did.

Finishing first overall is great, if you want to...lose in the first round. Maybe it's because the pressure is cranked up and especially for newcomers like the Canucks it's hard to handle being top dog. We'll find out.

The record of President's Trophy winners is very sketchy since 2000. Have a look at the highest seeds' glorious records:
'00 St. Louis Blues lost in 1st rd. to the San Jose Sharks
'01 Colorado Avalanche won the Cup
'02 Detroit Red Wings won the Cup
'03 Ottawa Senators went to the semi-finals
'04 Detroit Red Wings lost in the quarter-finals to the Calgary Flames
'06 Detroit Red Wings lost in the first rd. to the Edmonton Oilers
'07 Buffalo Sabres went to the semi-finals
'08 Detroit Red Wings won the Cup
'09 San Jose Sharks lost in 1st rd. to the Anaheim Ducks
'10 Washington Capitals lost in 1st rd. to the Montreal Canadiens

Now the cup is half full people will argue that the Wings (twice) and the Avs all won Cups as President's Trophy holders. That is a good argument, if you have a track record of playoff success. The Avs in the years from its '96 Cup went to three semi-finals and got CuJo-ed by the Oilers in the first rd. over those prior four seasons.
The Wings since their '97 & '98 Cup years subsequently got to the quarter-finals twice and lost in rd. 1 to the Los Angeles Kings (what?) in '01. So their record was indifferent yet they also had plenty of Cup pedigree in that '01/02 Cup year with ten players who hung around since '98. Adding Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Duchesne, Fredrik Olausson and especially Dominik Hasek in the intervening seasons did obviously help in that '02 Cup run.

The Wings after '02 through to their next Cup lost twice in the first rd., went to a quarter-final and got to the semi-finals in '07. Again a bit of a mixed bag of playoff success but we are talking the Red Wings after all. They somehow managed to retool and not let their playoff failings derail their Cup plans. Hence in '08 they won it all and with eight guys still on the roster from the '02 Cup team as well as a returning Chris Osgood.

Where does that leave the Canucks then?
Will they fold like San Jose and Washington did the past two seasons or can they parlay a mediocre playoff resume into a long run to at least the semi-finals a la the Sabres or the Sens did?

The Sens may be the model as prior to its first ever deep playoff run in '03 to the semi-finals, they lost four times in rd. 1 and twice in the quarter-finals. The Canucks have almost as middling a record--a first rd. loss in '05, three times out in the quarter-finals . . . and even twice missing the playoffs in the past six seasons.

Probably the key for the Canucks is similar to the Sens' key--avoid at all cost your nemesis.
In '03 the Sens dodged a huge bullet as the Toronto Maple Leafs (the team that knocked the Sens out of the playoffs in three straight seasons) lost a Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers. That cleared the track for the Sens' deep Cup run that fell short in a Game 7 vs. the New Jersey Devils.

Ominously, the Canucks' current doppelganger, the Chicago Blackhawks, lie waiting for Vancouver in the 8th spot. If ever Marc Crawford owed the Canucks a favor, he needs his Stars to come through and snag that last spot and knock Chicago out. The Canucks went 4W-0L vs. the Stars this season. Outscoring the Stars 20-5, by the way, in those four games.

Now we could argue the Hawks are weaker this season with all the changes but they are still the defending Cup champions. They seem to have easily replaced Antti Niemi with Corey Crawford in net, and they have been pretty red hot since the All-Star break. This is not a normal 8th seed.

Having said that some Cup champs (notably the '04 New Jersey Devils, '06 Tampa Bay Lightning. '07 Carolina Hurricanes and '08 Anaheim Ducks) who slump in the season following have flamed out losing in the first rd. or completely missing the playoffs as the Canes did in '07.

So there you have it, either the glass is half full or half empty but really it all comes down to matchups no matter what the Canucks record is. After all the '94 team was 14th overall in the regular season.