In the middle of January, the Vancouver Canucks can convince themselves that, all things considered, a single point on the road while getting outplayed badly is a decent result. But allow your mind to wander to a place where the Canucks somehow creep into the National Hockey League playoffs. There’s no way they can play like they did Tuesday at Madison Square or Sunday at Barclays Center (or even Friday in whatever Carolina’s rink is called) and think they’d have a sniff of advancing.
You have to play to win especially come playoff time when there is no shootout to decide the outcome in overtime. No, in the playoffs, it’s next goal wins once you get to O/T and in their last two games there was no evidence provided that the Canucks wanted to score the next goal once they took a lead to the third period. Outshot 22-4 in the third by the Islanders, the Canucks were outshot 16-2 by the Rangers. Oh, surprise, surprise, they gave up the only goal in each of those periods, too.
Yes, Ryan Miller was remarkable for a second straight game and that’s a highly encouraging sign for the veteran goalie returning from injury. But the Canucks have now given up 40, 40, 48 and 49 shots in their past four games. Once, hey it happens. Twice is reason for concern. But four straight games getting lit up on the shot clock with a defense that is missing only one guy (Dan Hamhuis) has to have management wondering about the pieces of the puzzle that have been assembled on the back end. It really is a miracle that this team somehow collected three of four points from The Big Apple.
Some nights you watch Matt Bartkowski and you just wonder how he worked his way up the hockey ladder to the NHL. Tuesday was one of those nights. He was one giant adventure on the Rangers first goal (above). With a delayed penalty to Bartkowski pending, the Rangers worked the puck around the Canucks zone and number 44 got caught in no man’s land frozen 15 feet to the left of the net taking neither the puck carrier nor the shooter. He simply looked on as the Rangers worked the puck to the crease and eventually into the net. You can’t do that in the NHL or you’ll get burned. Oh, he got torched.
And then early in the third (above), more puck watching as Rick Nash dashed into the Canucks zone on right wing and again Bartkowski took a front row seat rather than taking the man or any kind of defensive posture. His skating is his saving grace that keeps him employed because he doesn’t seem blessed with hockey smarts on so many seemingly routine plays.
In their last eight regulation periods, the Canucks have surrendered 19, 11, 11, 13, 22, 17, 13 & 16 shots on goal. You have to trace back to the first period in Carolina on Friday to find the last time the Canucks held an opponent to single digits in a single period. And consider, too, that none of the past three opponents are in the top-10 in the NHL in average shots per game (NYI 12th, CAR 16th & NYR 21st). Buckle up because the final two opponents on this road trip are in the top five in the league in that category: Boston is 5th while Pittsburgh leads the league with an average of 32.1 shots per game.
Tuesday was the Canucks league-high 18th trip to overtime (in 47 games). Their last three outings have gone beyond regulation as have five of the last six and nine of the last 14 dating back to a 4-3 shootout victory in Detroit on December 18th. And with all that extra action, the Canucks remain with just four regulation victories in their past 24 games.
Bo Horvat continued his run of fine play to start the new year making a terrific power move to circle the net and set up Sven Baertschi for the game’s opening goal. Horvat now has a team-high 10 points (6+4=10) in January. What’s amazing to me is that as Horvat heats up and Baertschi benefits from it, Radim Vrbata’s still missing in action most nights. At least on the scoresheet. Credit where it’s due, I suppose, Vrbata did have both Canucks shots in the third period on Tuesday although neither resembled a true scoring chance. He finished the night with five of the team’s 20 shots so it wasn’t as if he didn’t compete, but he’s just not scoring with only 1+2=3 in 11 games since Christmas.
It was nice to see Alex Burrows bump his crazy slump with his first goal in 25 games after some strong work in the offensive zone by linemates Emerson Etem and Linden Vey. Burrows last goal on November 21st was an empty netter against Chicago. The last time he scored against an NHL goalie was November 14th in Toronto. With the Burrows goal, Vey notched another point. He’s not going to catch Patrick Kane in the league scoring derby, but the guy has points in two of his last three games and four points in 13 games on the season. That’s .307 points per game which isn’t far off the .32 points per game he averaged over 75 games (yeah, Vey got into 75 games) last season. And remember he had a bunch of first unit power play time last season.
Willie Desjardins’ loyalty to some of his veterans has been called into question in this space and by others at many points throughout this season. So it must be noted that the Canucks coach was in no mood for playing favourites after Derek Dorsett failed to clear the zone on the play that led to the Rangers 2-2 goal with under 10 minutes to play in the third. Neither Dorsett nor fellow fourth liner Brandon Prust saw the ice again over the final 8:46 of regulation or at any point in overtime. Prust was already living on borrowed time as it looked like he might be a healthy scratch for the game before the coach reconsidered and let the one-time Ranger face his former team. But it was another uninspired effort from the veteran and at this point I have no idea — and I’m not sure the Canucks coaching staff or management knows — what it would take to get Prust invested in a game. And this was a guy who was terrific for them for the first month of the season. It’s just a strange situation. I don’t know if he wants out, but if he does the Canucks should be looking to peddle him ASAP. Prust or Virtanen? You tell me who you’d rather see play on a nightly basis and who’d likely be more of a factor moving forward. Thought so.
Finally, not even two months after being swept aside in corporate downsizing in radio, I was saddened to read of the purge in the newspaper business — particularly the sports sections — in this country on Tuesday. My heart goes out to all of the professionals who have worked hard for so many years to reach the positions they had only to have them ripped away. These are good people and terrific story tellers. I know a few of them personally and have had the chance to interview many of them over my years in talk radio. The sports media is a pretty small circle in this country. And it seems to be getting smaller on a weekly basis. And that’s such a shame.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. I’ll have another blog after the Boston game on Thursday.