Jeff Paterson: The final stretch
The trade deadline is finished and the Canucks have 19 games left as they push towards a playoff berth.
On the surface, much changed for the Vancouver Canucks at Monday’s National Hockey League trade deadline.
So a few of the faces moving forward are new to the organization – brought in to address specific needs of an already very good hockey club – but one thing remains very much the same. The Canucks are a team built on a solid foundation of veterans who will ultimately determine just how far this hockey club can go.
With Hodgson shuffled off to Buffalo, the Canucks have lost some offensive depth and some power play production. As such, it becomes imperative for others to elevate their games to fill the void.
The Canucks don’t need to score in bunches as evidenced by the fact they have found their defensive groove. The team has held its last 17 opponents to three or fewer goals in regulation time and given up more than three just twice in 24 games since January 1st.
With stellar goaltending, solid structure in their own zone and a surging penalty kill, the Canucks appear to be rock solid defensively as they hit the stretch run of the regular season. There is much to like about the way the Canucks have held opponents in check and the addition of Pahlsson should only make a good team even better defensively and harder to play against.
Now the hockey club has to find a way to kick-start its offensive consistency in order to be hitting on all cylinders when the playoffs roll around.
The Canucks have shown an ability to win games and pick up points with regularity over the past six weeks thanks in large part to their offensive depth – of which Cody Hodgson, at times, had been a key part (although even his production had slowed recently and the hockey team continues to roll).
TURN THE POWER ON
One area the club must figure out soon is how to get the power play clicking like it was earlier in the season. The personnel remains the same, but power play production has dropped considerably in the second half of the season. This is a power play that used to blow opponents away, but now is blowing opportunities instead.
With a recent run of games going to overtime and beyond, the Canucks have found themselves battling in tight affairs on many nights. Those are the kinds of games they can expect on an almost nightly basis going forward. Those are also the types of games that can be won with a timely goal with the man-advantage.
A power play unit that scored five goals in Chicago on November 6th and generated all four goals in that memorable January 7th victory in Boston finds itself in a bit of a late-season funk producing goals in just four of the past 16 games. There is simply too much talent on the Canucks to have a sputtering power play – and they will most certainly need their special teams to win them some games in the weeks and months ahead.
Zack Kassian, Sami Pahlsson and Marc-Andre Gragnani will all have their roles to play as they join the Canucks for the playoff push and join a group with visions of a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final very much on their minds. But it’s going to be up to Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and David Booth to carry this team offensively from here on out with secondary support from Chris Higgins, Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen.
All of the leaders have scored in spurts this season, but not one of them is heading for a career-high in goals. Again, that speaks to the spread scoring the Canucks can deploy, but it also means there have been some stretches of inconsistency from all of the top-end talent.
Higgins’ and Raymond’s seasons have been beset by injuries so it’s not entirely fair to judge their years against past production while Hansen got off to a fast start, but has seen his goal-scoring cool since Christmas. Still, almost every time out, the Canucks find a way to grind out victories – a trait that should serve them well as the games that matter most draw near.
SAME BUT DIFFERENT
While the point totals are nearly identical, there has been a different feeling to this season compared to last year when the Canucks led the league in every conceivable statistical category and were full of flash and dash on their way to the best record in the NHL. This year’s team seems to have learned how to win even when not at its best. That’s something teams like the Canucks can get away with in the regular season, but starting in mid-April they’ll need to raise their level of play.
Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, the Canucks know this is the line-up they have to work with. They changed a few faces and addressed a few needs, but they didn’t do anything to alter what has worked for them for years now.
They left the veteran core in place and added around the edges and now hope the group they’ve got is the combination that will lead them to the Stanley Cup.