The Vancouver Canucks are holders of the NHL’s longest current winning streak, having won five in a row. They’re getting excellent goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Eddie Lack, their second line is scoring at an unprecedented rate, and it would appear that John Tortorella’s coaching strategy is gaining more and more traction. Having gone through a forgettable stretch of 4-5-4 in November, the Canucks found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. It wasn’t that their play was particularly bad, but there was a sense that they just were not finding “ways to win games”. In fact, it appeared that they were simply finding ways to lose them. Taking the lead into the third period is generally a recipe for success, but the Canucks seemed to want to buck that trend with their play throughout November. In five of those nine losses, the Canucks were either tied or leading going into the third, but failed to convert that good fortune into a full two points. Even in their 3-2 overtime win against Phoenix, the Canucks gave up a 2-0 lead heading into the third period of a critical game, looking to leap frog the Coyotes. Alas, that’s enough about the doldrums of dreary November. That was then, this is now, and now is looking pretty good.
Back in the playoff picture, though with several games in hand on pretty much everybody, Vancouver is back (or close to) where fans are used to seeing them at this point in the year. As the weekend approaches, the Canucks are well rested and feeling good after dropping the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 2-0, giving rookie Eddie Lack his first career NHL shutout in his first start at Rogers Arena. That’s a good thing, seeing as Vancouver has the upstart, somewhat hot Edmonton Oilers to deal with on Friday and the big, (really) bad Bruins one night later in a rematch of the (sigh) 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. To call this weekend a “chance to make a statement”, might be underselling it by just a bit. Okay, that would be underselling it by a lot.
First, there are the Oilers to contend with. It would appear that the young guns in “The City of Champions” (yes, they’re still calling it that) have found their groove, going 6-3-1 in their last ten. Stalwarts Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner are scoring and the team has seemingly turned a corner after a very rocky start. Regardless of their record or place in the standings, Edmonton always has the skill and fire power to turn a game upside down and the Canucks are well aware of the potential of their former Northwest Division foes. Roberto Luongo confirmed that he will get the start on Friday night, causing those following the Canucks to wonder if he’ll get the start against Boston too, or if Tortorella will continue the trend of starting backups against the Bruins… If the Canucks can establish an early lead against Edmonton (who themselves will be in the second of back to back games), it will allow Tortorella to give some of his top minute-munchers some extra time on the bench. That being said, the Canucks can ill afford to look past the Oilers, as evidenced by the 7-2 drubbing Edmonton laid on them in the final game of the 2012-2013 lockout shortened season.
The Bruins come to town a day after Shawn Thornton‘s in-person hearing at the NHL Department of Player Safety offices in New York. Last Saturday, many hockey fans (and even those just watching the news) saw the brutal slew-foot, sucker punch combo, reminiscent of one Todd-Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident, from Thornton on Pittsburgh defender Brooks Orpik in a game that essentially left the Bruins three men down. Loui Eriksson is out with another concussion, Chris Kelly has a broken fibula (uh, ouch), and Thornton will undoubtedly be suspended for some time. Note: In my opinion, Thornton should get somewhere between 11-15 games. Anyway, that shouldn’t dampen the spirits of these two combatants, as the Canucks and Bruins have developed a serious rivalry stemming from one of the most physical, “hate-filled” Cup Finals in recent memory. The Bruins will be back in Rogers Arena for the first time since that fateful Game 7 and even though Boston may be a few men short, they haven’t let it slow them down. With such a heated battle, there is likely to be a few penalties in the game, and herein lies a big key to the Canucks success. Special teams have been Jekyll and Hyde for Vancouver, with the best penalty kill in the league and a WAY below average powerplay. Though getting better, clicking along at a 21% success rate in their last 9 games, the Canucks are still ranked 25th in the league. Matching up against the top line of the Sedins will be, as is customary, the towering Slovak, Zdeno Chara. This opens up some opportunities for the Canucks hot second line to make some plays and continue their recent dominance.
Chris Higgins, Mike Santorelli and Ryan Kesler have combined for 19 points in the last 7 games and haven’t been held scoreless during this current win streak. Pretty much everyone around the league agrees that without a solid, scoring second line, a team doesn’t stand much of a chance competing with the upper echelon of the NHL’s elite teams. If this line continues to provide offense while still being responsible in their own zone, you can expect the Canucks to keep winning. The defense in the NHL, and especially in the Western Conference are simply too good to try and pit a single scoring line against a core of 3 or 4 solid defensemen. With a continuance of secondary scoring, more stellar goaltending, and a strong special teams game, the Vancouver Canucks can make a statement this weekend. Knocking off a young Pacific Division foe and avenging (to some degree, at least) the 2011 loss on home ice against the Bruins would go a long way in a locker room that, while not short on self-confidence, could always do with some more.