The Vancouver Canucks host the Jaromir Jagrs – that is, the Calgary Flames – on Saturday night at Rogers Arena as two teams with low expectations try to defy their critics.
Three games into its season, the Vancouver Canucks have done what everyone expected. Mediocrity was the best most fans dared hope for, and that is precisely what the patchwork of rookies and vets has provided so far.
Calgary, on the other hand, is off to a decent 3-2-0 start, and received a shot in the arm with the recent acquisition of NHL elder statesman Jaromir Jagr. Unlike the Canucks, the Flames don’t have the rebuilding excuse to hide behind; they have something to prove. So far, they have mostly done that, led by Johnny Gaudreau and Mike Smith.
The Canucks won both of their matchups with the Flames in the preseason, but it isn’t wise to read much into that. Calgary is on a good run and Vancouver has stumbled out of the gate, so the odds are in Calgary’s favour, especially with Canucks’ top-pair defender Alex Edler sidelined by injury.
Vancouver will have to bring a good game on Saturday to keep it close, because Calgary will most certainly be looking to rebound from a poor game Friday night. But let’s be honest: the highlight of the night for any true hockey fan will be seeing Jagr, now 45 years old, in his third game as a Flame.
Vancouver Canucks (1-1-1)
Controversy over whether rookie Brock Boeser would get in the lineup has come and gone. Boeser missed a win and a shootout loss, but was inserted into the lineup for Thursday’s tilt with the Jets and Vancouver took the L. While Boeser’s game was good, the question now turns to whether someone else should be removed to bring back Alex Burmistrov, who was scratched in the loss to Winnipeg.
Burmistrov has been solid for the Canucks so far; better, in fact, that some of the highly paid veterans whose roster spots are assumed to be untouchable.
That’s what head coach Travis Green suggested when asked about Eriksson on Thursday night.
Whatever the coach does with his lineup, the Canucks will need to find a way to generate more offence against the stingy Mike Smith who, until Friday night, has been very good.
Who’s on Offence
Bo Horvat has been the Canucks offensive leader so far this season (all respect to master sniper Chris Tanev) and no Canuck has pushed the pace like he has. If this is his team, he will have to keep being that guy as the difficult nights pile up. Expect to see him playing with Sven Baertschi and Boeser, a line that has developed some chemistry.
The Sedins, written off as “too old and too slow,” have so far proven that they are still going to score in this NHL. Despite claims that they can’t generate anything at 5×5, they looked solid against Winnipeg at even-strength, with linemate Thomas Vanek using his strength and physicality to recover pucks and go to the net.
Who’s on Defence
Now there’s a million dollar question. Who, indeed. With the loss of Alex Edler to injury, the Vancouver Canucks are down to one dependable NHL defender, Chris Tanev. Beneath him the depth chart drops off like the chasm of Khazad-dum. To be fair, sophomore Troy Stecher has been respectable, and remains an important piece of the future.
But after that, it’s grim. Ben Hutton, in particular, had a dismal night against the Jets. Erik Gudbranson left Patrik Laine alone in front of the net on one goal. And Michael Del Zotto, well, he kicked a puck into his own net.
We will undoubtedly see either Alex Biega or newcomer Derrick Pouliot against Calgary, or perhaps both of them if the coach decides to give Hutton a rest. Canucks fans would be happy to get a first glimpse at Pouliot, once a highly-touted prospect, hoping for a new start in Vancouver.
Who’s in Net
Jacob Markstrom has looked better and better in his three starts so far this season. In each of his first two games there was at least one soft goal, balanced out by several excellent saves. In his third start against Winnipeg, he eliminated the softie, and played solid for three periods.
While many fans have been expecting to see Anders Nilsson get his first start as a Canucks, Travis Green has a reputation of riding a hot goalie and Markstrom has been good, if not great. If he is going to get a fourth consecutive start, it might be time for Marky to steal a game.
Calgary Flames (3-2-0)
Jaromir Jagr is the story, even if his impact on the game isn’t as significant as we all want it to be. In his first game with the Flames he looked like a 45-year old. Jagr hadn’t played an NHL game in nearly six months, so some rust was to be expected.
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But as he shook out the cobwebs on Friday night, Jagr looked more like the dangerous player we know. His strength and poise with the puck meant that he was able to maintain possession for longer than most young players, and hey, he is the NHL’s third highest scorer, ever.
Meanwhile, Calgary’s young guns are probably thankful for Jagr’s presence if only because it draws attention away from the pressure they are feeling. Calgary is supposed to be well on the way back to contention; that’s what they believed in 2014-15 when they easily knocked Vancouver out of the playoffs in the first round.
And yet, it hasn’t worked out that way. Three years later, these Flames are being treated as an also-ran, unable to compete with the West’s true juggernauts, like Edmonton and Nashville. Look for Calgary to come gunning for the Canucks in an effort to regain top spot in the Pacific Division after a disappointing 6-0 loss to Ottawa.
Who’s on Offence
I promised myself I wouldn’t start with the obligatory “here’s Johnny,” but puns and cliches are the sportswriter’s manna. Johnny Gaudreau is without question the key to Calgary’s success. Their young star is currently tied for second in NHL scoring with seven points, and the Flames go with Gaudreau.
His supporting cast, however, is better than some believe. Sean Monahan continues to quietly produce, Mikael Backlund already has two goals, and young Matthew Tkachuk – he who the Canucks skipped over to draft Olli Juolevi – is emerging as a legit top-six forward. (I still like the Juolevi pick, see my comments above re: Canucks defence.)
And finally, yes, Jaromir Jagr. In his second game, he looked more like the Jagr we saw last year in Florida, and one would expect him to get better as he gets back into the NHL rhythm. Then again, three games in four nights is a lot for a 20-year old. Jagr may not see a ton of ice time.
Who’s on Defence
On paper, Calgary’s defence makes a Canucks fan drool. With the exception of Boom-Boom Matt Bartkowski, the Flames defenders are as deep as any in the NHL. While they lack a single marquee player, they have four/five players they can count on, led by captain Mark Giordano.
Notably, T.J. Brodie has already notched five points, and Dougie Hamilton and Giordano each have a pair of assists. Travis Hamonic is playing big minutes and looking comfortable. This is no easy picking for a Canucks team that struggles to score.
And yet, the numbers in Calgary’s first four games do not reflect well on the defence. They have given up over 40 shots in each of these games and have escaped the criticism they faced last year at this time only because their goaltender has bailed them out. So let’s talk about that goaltender.
Who’s in Net
No one doubts that – despite the attention garnered by the Jagr signing – the most important acquisition of the Flames offseason was goaltender Mike Smith. The mercurial Smith has always been a difficult guy to read; at times, it has seemed like he was on the verge of washing out of the NHL entirely, but when he gets in a groove, he can be unbeatable.
Until Friday night, he was in a groove. Riding a .950 save percentage coming into Friday’s game against Ottawa, Smith had been the difference between last year’s Flames and this year’s. He was the only reason Calgary hadn’t been run out of some of these early games. But a shelling by the Ottawa Senators – largely a result of poor defence and penalty trouble – saw Smith give up 5 goals before being pulled in the third period.
So the Canucks may not actually see Mike Smith at all. After playing Wednesday and Friday nights and dealing with a minor in-game injury on Friday, Flames head coach Glenn Gulutzan was expected to put former-Canuck Eddie Lack between the pipes.
This would be good news for Canucks fans, since he is both a very likeable guy, and also an easier opponent than Smith. With Smith pulled in the late stages of Friday’s game, Lack’s starting on Saturday seems almost inevitable. But Lack will be hungry to prove that he can compete for the starter spot, so the Canucks will need to pepper him with shots and try to find an early season weakness.
Johnny Gaudreau— Sean Monahan — Curtis Lazar
Matthew Tkachuk— Mikael Backlund — Michael Frolik
Kris Versteeg— Sam Bennett — Jaromir Jagr
Micheal Ferland — Matt Stajan — Troy Brouwer
Mark Giordano— Dougie Hamilton
T.J. Brodie — Travis Hamonic
Matt Bartkowski — Michael Stone
Keys to Victory
Vancouver needs to score goals. All the talk about activating the D, pushing the pace, being harder to play against… it’s petered out a little since the Edmonton opener. The Canucks will have to press hard against the usually tight (but so far pretty leaky) Flames defence and get more shots at the backup goaltender who hasn’t seen many pucks this year.
Calgary will be tired, coming straight off a frustrating game on Friday night, so if the Canucks can push that pace, the next trick will be to get pucks on net. Missing the net has been trending in Vancouver, one almost feels like there is a friendly competition to see who can miss the net by the widest margin. (You win, Brandon Sutter!)
It might be a good idea to try to take advantage of a tired Jaromir Jagr. I feel like a bad person even suggesting it. But there’s no question he’s going to be gasping by Saturday night. Players with speed, like Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen, Markus Granlund, and Alex Burmistrov should take every opportunity to go Jagr’s way.
Yes, I want to see Burmi in the lineup. Be bold, Travis Green, and scratch one of your vets. Loui Eriksson or Derek Dorsett would be in the pressbox if I had my way. And let’s have a look at Derrick Pouliot, no? He can’t be worse than Hutton has been, and maybe a new face will raise morale.
3-2 Flames. The Canucks D can’t stop this high-flying offence if Alex Edler is hurt. Calgary also has an elite defensive core that can shut down Vancouver’s anemic offence.
3-2 Canucks. The Flames are tired after playing Ottawa the previous night. The Canucks powerplay scores after replacing Hutton with Pouliot, and Loui Eriksson wakes up and scores as well.
3-2 Flames. Canucks blue line is in rough shape with Alex Edler. Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk will take advantage of that. Brock Boeser will score a powerplay goal and Bo Horvat will retake the team lead in goals.
Canucks lose in OT 4-3. Coming off an embarassing defeat, the rattled Calgary Flames will come out swinging. Nilsson might let in one weak one, but should be solid in his first appearance. Eddie on the other side of the rink is notbing special.
Despite the return to Vancouver again may give him a little “boost”, he is not going to shine. Boser will score his first, and the Vancouver Canucks five one five will hold their own. But their penalty-kill will have to step up if they want a chance to win. OT goal for the flames? Obviously Mr OT himself Monahan!
4-1 Flames. Offensive struggles continue for Vancouver who lose Edler and lose defensive stability. With Calgary’s stellar blueline and Smith’s newfound life, the Canucks are in tough to end the homestand above .500.
4-2 Canucks. Calgary is not playing as well as it’s record suggests. The myth of Matthew Tkachuk usually forgets that he takes a lot of bad penalties, and it has cost his team. Mike Smith’s magic has protected the Flames’ defense from the criticism it deserves, but Eddie Lack won’t be able to bail them out.