Jeff Paterson: First things first
How important is it to score the first goal of the game?
Who, exactly, do the Anaheim Ducks think they are?
Marching into Rogers Arena on Sunday night and opening the scoring the way they did when Nick Bonino -- of all people -- banged home his own rebound 6:48 after the opening the face-off.
In doing so, Bonino and the Ducks accomplished something no opponent of the Vancouver Canucks had done since Christmas – scoring the game’s first goal. The Bonino goal ended a streak of 10 straight games in which the Canucks had jumped on their opponent. Quite remarkably, it put the Canucks in a first period deficit for the first time since falling behind 1-0 in Columbus on December 13th. Yes, that one goal was the first time any opponent had been able to get out front of the Canucks in a first period in 16 games.
To take it a step further, the Bonino goal was the first time the Canucks had trailed in a first period on home ice since the Calgary Flames grabbed a 1-0 lead as the visitors on December 4th.
Simply put, the Canucks have been jumping all over their opponents all season early in hockey games but particularly over the past six weeks.
“Obviously if you get an early lead it bodes well for your game,” says Jannik Hansen who’s opened the scoring for the Canucks twice this season most recently on January 2nd against San Jose. “I don’t know if we’re doing anything differently than we were earlier in the year. It’s a matter of being prepared and knowing what to do. It’s a 60 minute game, but the first ones are equally important as the last ones.”
PUT A RECORD ON
At 24-6-1, the Canucks record speaks for itself when the team hits the scoreboard first. They are proving to be the league’s best front-runners with no other club registering more than 20 victories when opening the scoring and only two other teams – Detroit and the New York Rangers - posting more than 17 victories when hitting the scoreboard before their opponents.
“You always want to play with the lead,” says Hansen. “You can read off little plays and you don’t have to take as many chances and you can capitalize on the other guys trying to do too much to get that goal back. It’s definitely a big thing when you’re playing with the lead and not having to catch up all the time.”
During the recent run of 10 straight games opening the scoring, on six occasions the Canucks scored in the first 3:11 of the hockey game. And it’s not just one guy they turn to get the offense going. While Daniel Sedin leads the club with five opening goals this season, in the 10 games after Christmas nine different players accounted for the first goal of the game.
HOME ON THE ROAD
The first goal of any game is significant, but more so out on the road in hostile environments where an early scoring play can send a message to the other team and its fans.
And recently that message has been delivered while the final strains of the national anthem are still echoing in the arena. In their past six road contests, the longest Canucks have gone before opening the scoring is the 5:41 it took for Ryan Kesler to cash in with a two man advantage in Boston on January 7th.
“Any team would love to score the first goal - I don’t think there’s any secret to it,” says Mason Raymond.
“You want to have a good start in any game in any sport. You get that first one, you can get the second one and go from there. It’s never easy when you’re trailing. That’s one of our key points. You get the lead, you go with the lead, you play with the lead and hopefully win with it. It’s definitely something we focus on.”
MAKING THE STOPS
As silly as it sounds, a big part of getting the first goal is making sure the other team doesn’t. And that’s where goaltending comes in. There were times in the recent run where the Canucks opponents had quality chances to open the scoring but were denied.
And the fact his team has given him the lead to work with almost every night over the past six weeks hasn’t gone unnoticed by Roberto Luongo.
“We just try to play the right way and we do that by being read right off the start, and I think preparation is important,” he says. “You always want to start good, that goes without saying, but I think it starts with being prepared. We had some moments earlier in the year when we were sluggish out of the gates and we addressed that. It’s upon ourselves to be prepared each and every game and to know the game plan and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
NOT GIVING IT UP
The Canucks success early in hockey games goes beyond just the first goal. The Canucks are the highest scoring team in the NHL in first periods this season (51 goals) and have surrendered the third-fewest first period markers (27).
In the past 16 games, the team has given up just six first period goals and never more than one in any of those games. And when Bonino opened the scoring Sunday for Anaheim, Cody Hodgson replied for the Canucks 4:04 later. Those 244 seconds are the only time the Canucks have trailed in the first period in their last 11 games.
The last time the Canucks fell behind 2-0 in the first period of a hockey game was in Montreal on December 8th – when the Canucks rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 in a shootout. The game against the Habs was one of only two times in the past 40 games the Canucks have found themselves in a 2-0 hole in the first period. What it all means is that this team doesn’t allow itself to get in trouble early very often.
“You have to give credit to the players’ preparation,” explains head coach Alain Vigneault. “This game is about getting yourself in the state of mind where you can go out on the ice and execute and execute consistently, have the energy and perform. Our guys do a real good job of understanding what it takes to get themselves ready. And then they prepare for the opponent they’re going to meet and their tendencies whether it’s five on five or on the power play.”
As the game against Anaheim showed, the Canucks won’t always score the first goal. But getting the early lead will always be a big part of their game plan.