After taking three of four games on the road, the Vancouver Canucks arrive home for five games – and a chance to climb out of the ninth-place position in the Western Conference they have been stuck in for weeks.
There has been chatter about how this team, three seasons past its Stanley Cup final run, might not be good enough to make the postseason this year, especially in the difficult West and their new home in the much-tougher Pacific Division.
The Canucks (15-10-5) have not done much to disprove skeptics: Scoring one goal in one-third of their games, and losing all of those, is one the glaring problems.
But amid the losses, there has been – and is – underlying promise.
The Canucks have been outplaying opponents, putting more shots on net, but the results have not been there, with Vancouver scoring only two more goals than its opposition this season (80-78).
The team’s latest win came Tuesday in Nashville, a game that tilted the Canuck’s way (which often didn’t happen during the long losing slog during November). With six minutes left in the third period, the Canucks with a 2-1 lead, Ryan Kesler hacked in a rebound from in close on a power play, one that came on a questionable call – and Vancouver buffered its lead and held on to win.
It was exactly the type of goal, on a power play, on a rebound, in close, that Kesler – who has four goals in two games – and the Canucks have not been scoring. And Vancouver previously wasn’t closing games. In Nashville, the first achieved the second.
“There’s just not that many pretty goals,” head coach John Tortorella told reporters after the game, on the need for scrappy goals to win.
The power play, which was a primary hole in the cap-gun offence the Canucks have showed up for games with too often, is still lowly ranked, 26th in the NHL, but is climbing.
In an interview in late November with assistant coach Glen Gulutzan, who runs the Canucks power play, Gulutzan acknowledged the power play had let the team down in chances to win, but believed the goals would come.
“We’re creating, we’re putting pucks on the net,” Gulutzan said.
“We have a ton of zone time. It’s just a matter of those pucks going in.”
The Canucks’ ability to pull their way up the standings rests on the same general issue. History suggests if they keep up their play, it will produce the wins necessary to make the postseason.
On the puck-possession statistic Fenwick close, measuring shots on goal and missed shots at even-strength when games are tight – the Canucks are seventh in the league. Research has shown this correlates better with wins through the rest of the season at this point in the year than goal-differential, where the Canucks obviously looked decidedly average.
And over the past several seasons, teams in the top 10 in puck possession at year’s end mostly make the playoffs.
This run of five games at home is the opportune moment for the Canucks to disassemble the disadvantage they’ve built through 30 games. The last homestand was a failure, losing six of seven.
The team has been smacked by a couple fresh injuries, winger Alex Burrows with a broken jaw and out for at least a month, and defenceman Alex Edler, likely out for Friday’s game against Phoenix Coyotes – the team directly ahead of Vancouver in the standings.
The situation will remain in the state general manager Mike Gillis described it last week, before the Canucks went 3-1 on their road trip. “These are playoff games for us now.”
It’s the first time in a long time this was the case for the Canucks.