In isolation, there was plenty to like about the Vancouver Canucks 5-2 win over Buffalo on Monday night. Hats were flying, players were trying and for the first time in a long while it actually looked like the guys in Canuck colours were having fun. We’re never quite sure about Willie Desjardins level of enjoyment, but the head coach certainly had to feel like he saw things from his team that had been missing in recent dispiriting losses.
Now, nothing comes easily for this bunch of Canucks. And rather than using the Sabres as a pinata and beating them into submission in the third period, the Canucks gave up the early goal to Sam Reinhart and for the next five minutes it looked like the Canucks might allow the Sabres to work their way back into the hockey game. And that’s why it was nice to see Radim Vrbata pull the trigger on this third goal of the night to put an exclamation mark on the victory.
But this is where I come back to my opening remark. In isolation, it’s a win, it’s two points and it changes the discussion — or at least the tone of the discussion — about the Canucks for a day or two. However, you have to remember that’s a young Buffalo team playing on back to back nights with a rookie back-up in net. The Sabres came into the game with three wins in their past dozen games and so it’s a win the Canucks should have had. And they did what they had to do to get it.
They needed a big night from Vrbata. They needed Chris Higgins to get involved. They needed some offense from their fourth line. They needed a power play goal when the game was hanging in the balance as it was late in the second with the Canucks up 3-1. When Henrik Sedin scored with the man-advantage with under three minutes to go in the middle period and pushed the Canucks lead to three, it marked the first time in 18 games the hockey club had taken anything more than a one-goal edge to the third period. The last time it happened was October 30th in Arizona. Richard Bachman was in goal that night and Brendan Gaunce scored his first NHL goal. The point I’m making is that it was a while ago. And for Ryan Miller, you have to go back to a 5-1 win over Montreal on October 27th to find the last time he had the luxury of anything more than a single-goal advantage heading to the final frame. So last night represented something we just haven’t seen from these Canucks in a long, long time. Just to refresh your memory, it’s called a cushion. (Now, they did pull away from Chicago in the third period of a 6-3 romp over the defending champs late last month, but three of those goals came in the third period in a game in which the Canucks clung to a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes of play).
By shuffling past Buffalo, the Canucks lightened the mood, padded their stats and did what they were supposed to do last night. And I hope they enjoyed it. I haven’t been around the team for a couple of weeks now, but have been on the front line during enough slumps over the past 15 years. And I can tell you it’s not much fun for anyone. I know many think the media take great delight in a struggling hockey club. And certainly losses present many talking points. But for those on a beat — who have to be in that room day after day after day — it’s not much fun when the storylines don’t change. Players don’t exactly warm to repeated questions about why they can’t score and why they can’t win. But those are the questions that have to be asked. So it becomes a vicious circle of repeated questions, a lack of answers and as the losses mount so too does the tension between the media and the players. That’s why last night’s game should serve as a release valve with the Canucks getting the kinds of contributions they needed to change the line of questioning for 48 hours.
But before the Canucks think they’ve turned any kind of corner, they ought to look at the schedule. A visit by the 18-7-3 New York Rangers tomorrow night in their final home game before Christmas followed by the start of a six-game road trip in Chicago on Sunday will provide a pretty good gauge of whether the Canucks have left the fog of the past few weeks behind. And while Radim Vrbata did the heavy lifting last night and it was good to see Brandon Prust use his stick the way hockey sticks were meant to be used, there are still all kinds of guys on the roster who need to elevate their play. If a few others can find their way on to the scoresheet, even on occasion, in support of the Sedins and the way they’re producing, then the Canucks will have a chance. But if the supporting cast feels its done its part for a while and goes back into hiding, then the Canucks will be destined to continue down the bumpy path they’ve been on for much of the season.
*for a number of reasons, I miss being at the rink on game nights. But from analysis standpoint, one of the toughest things is watching the game on TV and trying to get a feel for play away from the puck. I watched last night’s game (once I got my TV issues sorted out) and felt the only time I noticed Evander Kane was when he took a pair of second period penalties with his team trailing 3-1 (he was in the box for Henrik Sedin’s 4-1 PP goal). So I was shocked to see Kane’s final stat line show six shots on goal, 11 shot attempts and nine hits in 22:05 of ice time. Quite frankly, I didn’t notice him much but I have to assume that if I’d been at the rink, there would have been no way to miss a guy leaving that kind of mark on a hockey game
*it was great to see the West Coast Express reunited for a night. I was early in my career covering the Canucks when that trio was formed. As a reporter, I had the chance to watch those guys do their thing and had the chance to spend plenty of time covering them, too. I had someone on twitter ask me recently which player I have covered was the best to deal with. It didn’t take long for me to produce my response. Now, there have been lots of terrific guys to be around over the years. And every player handles the media and deals with the attention differently. I was glad to hear Todd Bertuzzi open up about the fact he took things too seriously while he was here. He wasn’t a lot of fun to be around on many nights (and practice days), but I always had the sense he was putting on the tough guy persona to keep the media at an arm’s length. The problem was he became such a good player, his on-ice performance made him a go-to guy for the media. And then it became an awkward dance and I think Todd now knows he didn’t do himself a lot of favours with the way he handled things. I always appreciated Markus Naslund’s honesty — especially after losses. He had a knack to speak without a filter and I almost always came away from any time with the long-time captain having gained some pretty good insight about why things had unfolded the way they had either for him on an individual basis or when he spoke in team terms. He never tried to hide his frustration and there was plenty of it in his time here particularly in the many playoff runs that ended far too soon. But the answer I gave to the question on twitter was Brendan Morrison. There was something about the ease with which Morrison conducted himself with microphones and notepads in his face that, for me, set him apart. He was a local guy who got his fair share of scrutiny, but win or lose was always approachable, understood his place in a market like this one. He didn’t shy away from the tough questions, but had an innate ability to deal with it all with the right mix of charm and humour that reflected the good times, but took some of the sting out of the rough patches. It was great to see the three of them together again throughout the day yesterday and it was terrific to see the response that line got when they were introduced prior to puck drop (and having Tom Larscheid on the microphone for the ceremony topped it off perfectly).
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