There he was again, Ryan Kesler, booking the most ice time of any Vancouver Canuck in the team’s 4-0 thumping of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kesler’s 25:08 played increased his season’s average to 22:57, the most among all NHL forwards. Henrik Sedin is second. Daniel Sedin is fourth.
Playing your first-unit power play as your primary first line, as much as you can, is a strategy coach John Tortorella has employed before. In Tampa Bay, he deployed Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier for the same bounty of ice time.
The Sedins, with Kesler, have rediscovered their scoring punch – but the good news Saturday night for Vancouver was the top-flight play of their patchwork second line, winger Alex Burrows in his third game returned from injury, winger Chris Higgins, and unwanted-journeyman-turned-top-six-forward Mike Santorelli at centre. It’s no longer a one-line team: it’s a two-line team.
The second line set the tone early, several minutes into the game, when a Burrows steal led to a Santorelli and Higgins two-on-one and a flurry of shots, the Canucks unlucky not to score on Toronto’s stellar James Reimer.
But their real work – along with defence pairing Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev – was neutralizing Toronto’s first line, led by Phil Kessel. Again, the tone was set early. Burrows invoked his chirpy self, which had been tamped down in former coach Alain Vigneault’s final years, chirping that on Saturday including a mocking mimic of Kessel’s swinging-of-stick at John Scott. A fight soon enough ensued and both went off for five.
“He’s beginning to show some of his personality here tonight also,” said Tortorella after the game of Burrows and his finding his stride, “so that was good stuff for this game.” Of the second line as whole, the coach said: “Throughout the game probably our best line, as far as puck control and where we want to play.”
Indeed, the second line shut down Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. In one example, in a second-period encounter some seven minutes into the frame, Toronto’s first line could not get out of its zone, pinned by alternating pushes of fore-checking and offensive pressure.
In a game dominated by Vancouver, the statistics behind the play of especially Hamhuis and Tanev against Toronto’s top three stands out. With those two on the ice at even-strength, in figures compiled by extraskater.com, the Canucks had almost 30 shot attempts compared with just four against – a ridiculous, massive gap. Santorelli, Higgins and Burrows had more than 20 shots for, compared with six against.
For Vancouver, the notably rise of another line is crucial. And the third line looked somewhat better on Saturday, as the team pushes towards “balance,” as Tortorella put it. The fourth line as always had micro-minutes, less than three on Saturday.
It’s impossible for the Canucks to succeed in the competitive Pacific Division, which is as difficult as the former Northwest was easy for Vancouver, if the team does not get more out of its bottom-six forwards.
The Canucks stand fourth in the Pacific, with nearly 20 per cent of the year finished, and their coming four-game road trip pits them against tough division rivals, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim, all except for L.A. undefeated at home. When L.A. appears like one of the easier teams on a trip, you know the quartet of games will be a suitable acid test.