The NHL schedule-maker did not do the Vancouver Canucks any favours this week.
Here the Canucks just finished a 12-day, five-game road trip in style with a 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night and they open a four-game homestand Monday night against the NHL’s best team over the last few weeks, the Minnesota Wild. Mind you, when the schedule was being drawn up last summer, a lot more people than the schedule-maker never figured the Wild would be leading the Canucks in the Northwest Division, let alone sitting on top of the entire league for most of December.
Any hockey sage can tell you the hardest game to win is the first home game after a long road trip. Teams are just not mentally ready to play after such a long period away from home.
But the Canucks have a chance to make a move on the Wild with a win Monday followed by games against the Detroit Red Wings and Calgary Flames on Wednesday and Friday. The Wild is 7-1-2 in its last 10 but is winless in its last three games and has four of its top-six forwards out with injuries.
“Yeah, that would be a benchmark for us, I guess,” said Canucks forward Mason Raymond, who scored three goals in his first six games back since recovering from a serious back injury. The rest of the Canucks were just as unenthusiastic about seeing the Wild game as a test for a team that caught fire in December, posting an 7-2-1 record in its last 10 games.
“It's been 12 days. It's been a long trip,” said head coach Alain Vigneault. “Christmas is around the corner so I'm sure everybody is looking forward to going back and seeing their family. We've got three games before the holidays and we're going to take care of them one game at a time.”
For the first game, then, the Canucks can say they are in good shape despite trying to win that first home game against such a good team. Goaltender Roberto Luongo seems back on track after playing well against the Maple Leafs, their power play is still the most deadly in the league and Daniel Sedin also looked good against the Leafs after sitting out one game with back spasms.
One thing the Canucks need to guard against, forward Alexandre Burrows said, is a team-wide complacency that moves in from time to time.
“We’ve got to make sure we bring it every night,” he said. “For some reason, we don’t always do that.”
There was little sign of that in their final game of the road trip. The Canucks took advantage of the Leafs’ poor play in their own end to stay in front from the first minute of the game.
The Sedin twins and Burrows showed why they are one of the top lines in the league but more encouraging was the play of Ryan Kesler’s line. He and linemates Christopher Higgins and Raymond were just as good, finishing with two goals and two assists to show off the Canucks’ scoring depth.
Raymond’s ability to step into the lineup and resume scoring is remarkable, considering he had not played since suffering a vertebrae compression fracture in the Stanley Cup final last June. “A lot of hard work I’ve done off the ice has paid off,” Raymond said.
A twirl against one of the NHL’s elite teams did not go well, so the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping to stop their slide with three games against opposition that is a little more their speed.
Not that Leafs head coach Ron Wilson thinks there’s a big problem. “It’s the ebb and flow of the season,” he said after the Leafs lost back-to-back games to the Buffalo Sabres and the powerful Vancouver Canucks.
The problem is, it’s been mostly ebb for the Leafs after a strong start that took them to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference through mid-November. A terrible penalty-killing unit, average goaltending and now embarrassing work in their own end of the ice resulted in a 7-10-2 record in their last 19 games and a tumble to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after Saturday’s loss to the Canucks.
Last week, Wilson was faced with getting the perennially awful penalty killers to improve, a task which ended with three power-play goals in the third period costing the Leafs a win against the Sabres. Now the coach also has to shore up his defence, which was absent far too often against the Canucks, beginning Monday night against the Los Angeles Kings. They play the Sabres again on Thursday and then finish yet another set of back-to-back, home-and-road games on Friday in New York against the Islanders.
Wilson argues the Leafs are right where he expected them to be at this point in the season and on one hand it’s hard to argue the point. The Leafs are three games over .500, which is not bad compared to the same point last season.
Then again, the Leafs finished three games above .500 last season (37-34-11) by NHL standards, which was not good enough to get in the playoffs. If Wilson and his assistant coaches cannot get the team’s defensive game in order the same thing will happen this season.
Defenceman Dion Phaneuf started the season looking like the gem he was in his first four years in the league. But like his team, Phaneuf took a step backward last week. The pair of rookie Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn also needs to find its legs in the Leaf zone.
Is it a goaltending controversy when both goalies are not impressive?
The play of James Reimer since he returned to the Maple Leafs after recovering from a concussion raised the question. He has had one above-average outing in five games since returning from his head injury, capped by a mediocre performance in losing to the Sabres last Friday.
Backup Jonas Gustavsson played well in Saturday’s loss to the Canucks, which was encouraging considering he had not played in 11 days. But he has faltered every time this season when Wilson looked like he was willing to give him a chance.
“They can be better,” was all Wilson was willing to say on the subject.
PLAYERS TO WATCH AFTER THE CHRISTMAS BREAK
Joffrey Lupul, Maple Leafs: He heads into the break as one of the bigger surprises among the NHL’s top 10 in points. Can he keep it up?
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins: His play is not bad this season but with Sidney Crosby on the shelf again, Malkin needs to move from 18th place on the scoring list before Sunday’s games to the top five after the break.
Teemu Selanne, Ducks: Another can-he-keep-it-up question. At 41 and in his 19th NHL season, Selanne has 33 points in 32 games, good enough to tie for 14th place by Sunday morning.
Something to think about while hoping the NHL’s rash of concussions eases this week – what should the names of the new conferences be under realignment next season? It looks like the league will stick to geographic names but how about a return to saluting the great names in the game like Orr, Howe, Beliveau, Richard, etc.?