Like all members of Canuck Nation, we here at Critically Canuck have suffered a long time. We will not die happily unless the Stanley Cup makes its way to Stanley Park.
Here you'll get the straight goods on our heroes. With both feet on the bandwagon, we will, however, pull no punches. As long time season ticket holders, that's our prerogative.
Expect analytical insight with a strong sense of history. We'll ask the tough questions. And answer them. Enjoy.
Ask me anythingSubmit
Yesterday, Vancouver Canucks’ President and General Manager addressed the media in his annual post-season delivery. In the wake of a second straight embarrassing playoff exit, he had plenty to answer for. And did so in his typically uncomfortably smug and evasive style.
Unlike seasons’ past, his support of his coaching staff was not explicit - the foregone conclusion being that head coach Alain Vigneault (who was absent from the proceedings) will be replaced in the coming weeks.
Gillis made multiple references to this season being a “messed up” one, negatively impacting his plans in a number of ways. Apparently, the lockout (which was anticipated by everyone) impaired his ability to move Roberto Luongo. Further, the parity induced by a shortened season made for a cluttered trading market with too many buyers and not enough sellers.
These comments, true as they may be, are simply excuses for a job that was not done. Coming from the smug Gillis, this is as close to an admission of guilt as we’ll get.
He spoke of “resetting” the organization as he did when he started here five years ago. The fact is that “resetting” amounted to sticking with the blueprint of the previous regime, retaining the same head coach and core players. The success of the early Gillis years proved it was the right decision, but proving how much credit Gillis should get for it is another matter entirely.
With particular reference to the four game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, Gillis referenced the notion of “luck”. After all, the Canucks were inches from a Jannik Hansen empty net goal that would have clinched game 2 and were then torpedoed by borderline penalty calls that cost them game 4. These points are duly noted but can’t hide the fact that the team failed to win a single game. Nor was there any qualification of their ride to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final on Kevin Bieksa’s lottery like stanchion assisted game winner.
There was also reference to how the game has changed and how the Canucks must adapt to that change. Gillis spoke of this new emphasis on size and toughness as if it was some scientific revelation that could only now be completely accepted and acted upon. In fact, it’s been the modus operandi for successful playoff teams more often than not for simply generations. And has been as clear as day to anyone specifically following this team since the flame out Stanley Cup loss to Boston two years ago.
As it relates to the self-induced goaltending controversy, there was finally an admission that Roberto Luongo has “likely” played his last game in this market. And optimistically, Gillis declared that there should be more options available this summer for a Luongo exit. We can only infer that Luongo will now desperately accept a trade to anywhere.
In short, the offerings of Gillis were predictable - long on excuses and short on culpability. There was, at least, an acknowledgement that some significant things need to happen. And whether or not the relative success of the Gillis era accrues entirely to him (or previous management regimes), it appears such success will allow him another opportunity to do what needs to be done.
After arguably the greatest season in team history, the Canucks begin another season with only the highest goal in mind. What that means to the suffering masses, of course, is another regular season waiting to see if this team will have what it takes come playoff time to finally deliver us to the promised land.
And while it should be easy to revel in the recent regular season and playoff successes, what should be most alarming to fans is the way this team has come apart at the seams at the end of each of the last three seasons. This has hardly been a lovable pack of losers who have gone out on their proverbial swords.
In the post lockout era, the Canucks are among the most successful regular season teams. In fact, they are among an elite group of eight teams (joining Detroit, San Jose, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and Anaheim) that have played above .600 hockey over the course of at least the last three seasons. The last five Stanley Cup winners are all part of this elite group. In the Canucks’ case, they have been able to maintain that standard over the course of the last five seasons.
And along with those other elite teams, the Canucks have had their share of playoff success, too (winning 54% of their total playoff games in that time span). In fact, of these eight elite teams, the Canucks have the highest playoff winning percentage of any team not to win the Cup since the lockout. And for a team that came within one win of a championship last season, that’s really not too surprising.
But what is quite surprising and should be quite alarming is the Canucks’ performance in playoff elimination games over that time span. A playoff elimination game is simply defined as a game that could end the season for either of the combatants and is ultimately the true barometer for killer instinct and resilience. In the last five seasons, the Canucks have played 18 of these games, winning only 7 - making them the worst elimination game team of any of the established elite regular season clubs of the post-lockout era. Even more so than notorious chokers like Washington and San Jose. And when it comes to championship clubs like Chicago, Anaheim, Detroit and Boston, the Canucks’ crunch time play does not come close to comparison. Those teams have won their many post lockout elimination games at the same rate as they would any other game - winning over 60% of the time.
Remarkably, some teams like the cocksure Black Hawks (having won a remarkable 9 of 12 elimination games with two overtime losses) , the gritty Ducks or even the combustible Capitals seem to play better with their (or their opponents’) season on the line. While the Canucks and, surprisingly, the Penguins seem to excel when the pressure is solidly off. Though the Penguins’ record in elimination games was outstanding up until their Cup win. Since then, they have lost five straight elimination games, mostly in the wake of some serious injuries.
So the evidence for the Canucks’ poor play when the pressure is at its highest is not just anecdotal; relative to the rest of the league in the post lockout era, it is fact. They are the biggest chokers.
So that leaves us to ponder why? Why does a team that wins well over 60% of its regular season and non-elimination playoff games over the course of 5 seasons, fail to win even 40% of their games when their or their opponents’ season hangs in the balance?
Well, there are no shortage of possible theories - perhaps an inability of the key players to deliver in the clutch, a lack of a physical and determined supporting crew who can make the difference in a game where the whistles are put away, a rash of ill-timed injuries, or a coaching staff that is paralyzed by process and fails to adapt to the urgency of the situation.
In our estimation, it’s likely a combination of all those factors. And each one of those theories deserves proper exploration in their own individual blog entries. But suffice is to say, nothing has transpired in the last three months to make you feel that the Canucks’ management have done a thing to address any of these possible issues.
The lexicon of sport is riddled with mantras that are so oft repeated, they sometimes sound hollow. And as the battles intensify, the calls of our “best players need to be our best players”, “we’ve got to leave it all out there”, and “you gotta be good to be lucky” can be heard everywhere.
And last night, the Canucks proved that every damn one of them is true.
On a night where they entered play with three chances to punch their ticket to a Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks could have been guilty of “counting their chickens before they hatch” as they had in their last two series’ game five encounters.
Indeed, Don Cherry, who rarely has more than a back-handed compliment for the Canucks (more on that in a future post), commented that the Canucks were “ripe for the picking” after the first period of last night’s game, despite holding a 1-0 lead.
But on this night, the Canucks’ best player was one Roberto Luongo, who began the series, despite a game one victory, in the doghouse of many once more for giftwrapping a Joe Thornton series’ opening marker.
And when your $10 million keeper (as he is typically, and inflammatorily, referred to in this market) is your best player, it might not matter how well the finally present-and-accounted-for Sharks play.
And the Canucks’ second best players on this night were the Sedins, who displayed their most dominant five on five performance of this playoff. And while that wasn’t enough on its own to guarantee victory, it was plenty to take some pressure off labouring leader Ryan Kesler.
Kesler, of course, “left nothing out there” despite seemingly suffering an early lower body injury - one that would have kept him (or perhaps Joe Thornton) off the ice in most instances. And, of course, it was Kesler who found his way to the front of the net in typical fashion to deflect in the late game-tying goal.
Which brings us to “Lady Luck”. Shark fans are lamenting another seemingly premature exit, this time wallowing in their collective misfortune as opposed to a final game no show by the usual suspects. After all, the face-off that set up the tying goal shouldn’t have happened. There should have been no icing since Dan Boyle’s clearing attempt hit Daniel Sedin on the way out.
But suffice is to say, blown icing calls don’t result in goals all by themselves. Joe Thornton lost a draw (or rather Henrik Sedin won it). The Canucks managed a quick point shot and Kesler, undefended in his offce, tipped home the tying goal. So the Canucks were indeed good to be lucky. Or at least, the Sharks weren’t good enough to avoid this misfortune.
Of course, the overtime winner was about the most bizarre goal you will ever see, with literally none of the 19,000 fans in the building nor the millions viewing at home having any idea how it found its way into the net. Yes, it seemed only Kevin Bieksa and possibly Patrick Marleau had any idea what was happening. So you can imagine how that little one-on-one battle might end.
In the case of Bieksa, who is playing at a level right now that is uncharted by any Canuck defenseman before him, we shall henceforth refer to him as “The Amazing Bieksa”. Yes, his powers now seem to extend to almost the supernatural - able to suspend the attention of both teams, and millions of viewers long enough to barely dribble a pathetic point shot past an unsuspecting goalie, whose run of good fortune has seemingly ended.
So yes, the Canucks were lucky last night. But the luck only means something because they were good enough to have rightfully earned a three games to one series lead to begin with.
And now you will likely hear lots of commentary about how this team is a “team of destiny”. After all, Bieksa’s double overtime winner came 17 years to the day that Greg Adams’ memorable gave 5 double OT winner had identically vaulted the Canucks to the final. And while it might work out that way, it is only because this team is good enough to determine its own destiny.
And no, it’s not because we want to have more to write about. And no, we are not part of the ownership group who stand to make even more millions if the Sharks can extend this series to seven games. And yes, we are really being facetious. Or somewhat. Please play along - there is method to this madness.
With the Canucks on the verge of their third ever appearance in a Stanley Cup Final, everyone is saying all the right things about finishing off the Sharks in five games so our heroes can rest up and watch the Eastern Conference combatants beat themselves up.
And certainly the logic of perfecting their killer instinct and finishing off the Sharks makes perfect sense, but you would be surprised to know that, for whatever reason, history shows that when it comes to the Stanley Cup Final, the path of least resistance can often be dangerous.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are unparalled in the history of team sport. Lord Stanley’s celebrated mug is, by all accounts, the toughest trophy to win - requiring sixteen post season victories at a time when players have been playing for nearly nine months straight. So again it would only stand to reason that by the time the two finalists get to square off, the team that has had the easier path to the final should be more likely to win.
But it’s simply not true. Not really even close to being true. In fact, the opposite has been decisively true.
It has been 23 years since the league expanded its playoff format to feature four best-of-seven series to decide its champion. And in that time, of the two teams battling in the final round, the team having played the least amount of games entering the final has won the Cup only seven times. Even more striking, in the seventeen years since the Canucks last appeared in the final, the team that got there in less games has only won the Cup three times.
Granted we’re not dealing with the biggest sample size here and the difference in games played by the finals’ combatants is rarely more than a couple of games, but the results are remarkable and indicative that the benefits of being battle tested outweigh the risks of being battle weary.
And while this flies completely in the face of the logic that a rested team is a more dangerous team, it does confirm that the Stanley Cup journey is about mental fortitude more than anything else.
So we don’t really want the Canucks to lose tomorrow, nor do we expect them to. But if they do, the adversity of having to play another game or two (while still prevailing) is likely to help them more than it will hurt them.
With the home San Jose Sharks refusing to feed upon the ample first period power play offerings this time out, the Canucks proved yet again that they will feed at every opportunity.
In a first period that had Canucks’ fans thinking they were simply watching game three all over again, the Sharks seemed somewhat disinterested in taking advantage of ample power play chances. Perhaps they felt guilty that the opportunities this time around weren’t deserved. Seriously, if Ron MacLean (never to be confused with Canuck homer John Garrett) thinks the Canucks were getting shafted, they really must have been.
At any rate, the Canucks, when faced with dominant 5-on-3 power play chances on what mostly amounted to dumb luck (a San Jose too-many-men on the ice call and a delay of game infraction for an accidental out of play clear), felt no shame in burying the Sharks and the helpless Antti Niemi with wicked slappers that would have had anyone flinching.
And while the shots on goal tally for the night might imply that the Canucks stole this game, it’s not true. The Canucks offense was stunted in the first period by the latest penalty parade and after making quick work of their second period chances, they reverted into lead protection mode.
The Conference Final Canucks have reverted to the determination and resilience that predicated their dominant regular season success. That combined with solid goaltending provided by Roberto Luongo has provided them with the deserved 3-1 series lead. And even when the Canucks, after some discipline issues, twice trailed in game three by three goals, their comeback attempts were only negated by a timeclock that ran out.
While we hesitate to offer up any game 5 predictions, one thing is clear. This game means everything to the San Jose franchise. Another loss will amount to another Conference Final exit (with only one win combined in two successive trips) for a team that is running out of excuses and with the obvious remedy being a roster gutting of the core skill players. The likes of Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau are down to final chances you would think.
So on this basis, the Canucks’ killer instinct in full effect will be required if they are to dispense with the Sharks and obtain a most valuable break before the Final series.
Fresh from their turn-the-other-cheek successes against neaderthalic Ben Eager and with judgment day clearly on the horizon (today, if you believe it), you’d have expected the Canucks to be the men without sin on Friday night.
But the rollercoaster ride of this post-season reached another free fall instead as the suddenly undisciplined Canucks wound up taking ten minor penalties. Yes, it’s tough to compete when you spend the equivalent of a full period of play one man down.
After Eager’s reckless hit on Daniel Sedin went unpunished by the spinning wheel of the NHL discipline department, you’d have thought that it would have been the Sharks, instead, on a short leash with the officiating crew. Think again. And we’re sure that the lopsided distribution of penalties in the wake of Eager’s undisciplined game two performance has many Canucks’ faithful walking down the conspiracy theory road again. We won’t. At least, not yet.
Despite the lost opportunity of a series stranglehold (though with these two teams, we use that term loosely), you did have to like the Canucks late game jam. Whether buoyed by their knowledge of the Sharks’ recent third period struggles or the Canucks’ simple determination, they almost recovered from the 4-1 third period deficit.
In fact, if the game had lasted just a few more minutes, it seemed inevitable that they would claw their way back to even.
And it’s the Sharks who will get to do exactly that in the pivotal game four encounter tomorrow at the ungodly noon hour (that’s assuming judgment day is deferred for at least another day). This has been a fantastic series thus far and we expect nothing less tomorrow. Enjoy.
On a night where Ben Eager ran around trying to settle scores, the Canucks again showed that, for now, they are the more determined team.
Clearly, Eager hasn’t been paying attention to how the Canucks operate this season. If you take liberties and wind up in the box, they will make you pay. Again. And again.
And while Patrick Marleau might get to lose the “gutless” label for the time being for daring to scrap with Kevin Bieksa, he gets to swap it for “punch drunk” instead.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan is faced with an interesting dilemma heading back to the Bay Area. Does he dare dress Ben Eager again, who after handing the game to the Canucks, seemed to think that making the score 7-3 was cause for celebration.
In the end, the likes of Ben Eager are bad for business for the NHL. His retaliatory charge on Daniel Sedin was completely predatory with only the Sedins’ durable genes saving the league from having another high profile discipline matter to deal with.
As for Bieksa’s pummeling of punch drunk Patrick, Marleau obliged and Bieksa delivered. Hard to see the harm nor foul in that encounter.
In the Canucks’ playoff history, this game has to rank as one of the most complete performances. All lines are contributing - with twelve players getting their names on the scoresheet tonight. The struggles of the supposedly injured Sedins are now forgotten. And Roberto Luongo? Well, he passed to the guys in blue tonight.
We expected more from the Sharks this evening, who are having trouble simply keeping up with Vancouver and with games 3 and 4 less than 48 hours apart, they will hardly have time to catch their breath. But as fans of both of these teams know, series’ leads can evaporate in a moment.
In a game where the Canucks outshot, outchanced and outhit their opposition, the final 3-2 result was a just one.
And while Sharks’ fans will be bitterly complaining about a phantom Dany Heatley elbowing penalty that gave the Canucks the chance for the game-winning tally, the biggest factor in the Sharks having the lead for most of the night was another gift, this one not provided by the officials, but Roberto Luongo.
For perhaps the first time all play-offs, the Canucks displayed the type of game that made them the best regular season team.
Often rolling four lines and having their defense engaged in the attack (even when protecting a late game lead), the Canucks combined a resilient performance from Roberto Luongo (after said first period gaffe) with a most opportunistic power play to give the weary Sharks just what they should have expected.
Game One showed the Canucks with little rust after a lengthy layoff and established clearly (like there was any doubt) that this will not be another round of paint drying, instead providing the faithful plenty of edge of your seat excitement.
Perhaps the biggest story in the game was the dominant performance from the Sedins, whom coach Alain Vigneault rode harder as the game progressed, putting aside any notions, for today anyway, that certain brother(s) may be playing hurt.
When Luongo’s first period tape-to-tape pass wound up on Joe Thornton’s stick and in the net, you could feel the life being sucked out of the building. But Lou was able to park that brain fart, as were his mates.
What pleased us most about this game was how the Canucks played after finally getting the lead mid-way through the third period. Against Chicago and Nashville, they were often guilty of attempting to baby their leads, collapsing into rope-a-dope fashion, with an often predictable result. Not this time. Whether consciously attempting to bury the more tired Sharks or now being more relaxed and confident in their approach, the result was what we’d all become accustomed to throughout the season.
This is the edge that the Canucks must maintain througout to eke out the final seven wins to complete the job. And while we expect the Sharks to put up more resistance next game, these repeated third period collapses (three in the last four games) can’t be good for their collective psyche.
While we would have preferred to see the Canucks play the Wings, a battle with the Sharks has no shortage of interesting story lines. In fact, over the course of the last ten seasons, after Detroit, the Sharks and Canucks are the winningest teams in the Western Conference (and the third and fourth winningest teams in the entire NHL).
And with Detroit slipping in the regular season standings the last couple of seasons and being eliminated by the Sharks in the playoffs in each of those years, a showdown between Vancouver and San Jose will justly determine who is the now dominant Western Conference representative.
As we’ve outlined in a recent entry, if there is a team with more recent playoff underachieving to their credit than our Canucks, it is most certainly the Sharks. In short, despite making the playoffs nine of the last ten seasons and playing at a .622 average regular season clip, last year marked their first appearance in a Conference Final (one they lost easily to the Hawks). Vancouver has had eight playoff trips in the last ten, while posting an average .606 regular season winning percentage without a single trip to the Conference Final until this year.
So this series match-up could be called the battle of the underachievers. The maligned, easy going tandem of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau getting one more chance to prove they’ve got it in them. Amazingly, entering Thursday’s game seven match with Detroit, Marleau had played in 16 game six or seven playoff encounters, managing a measly single assist in that span - a remarkable span of crunch time ineffectiveness for a player who cannot impact a game in any other way than the scoresheet. He did get the tap-in game winner that night though.
Of course, this year’s Sharks aren’t yesteryear’s Sharks. Yes, the improved playoff play from Thornton has helped matters. But they are getting serious production from young players who aren’t carrying the emotional baggage of past failures. And then there is Dan Boyle, who provides tremendous leadership. And, every team needs a good luck charm - in this case, the unflappable, bendable, but not breakable Antti Niemi.
If the incentive of ending Antti Niemi’s ridiculously lucky six series winning streak isn’t enough ammunition for the Canucks, they might want to consider the opportunity to stick it to one more yappy ex-teammate (first Ryan Johnson, then Shane O’Brien and now Kyle Wellwood) - thanks to “Sandlak” for bringing this side story to our attention.
We won’t bother to belabour the Canucks’ playoff dramatics. Like the Sharks, despite some close calls this playoff run, they have earned their spot in the Conference Final. Ryan Kesler is cresting and Roberto Luongo has proven more resilient than many would have given him credit for. And the Sedins? Well, history shows that every time you think you’ve got them pegged, they simply prove you wrong one more time again. On that simple premise alone, we expect you will see more contribution from them this round.
We will stand by our initial observation that the Black Hawks represented the biggest challenge for this team, one they have overcome. The Canucks, collectively, have yet to play their best hockey and when they do, as in the regular season, will be too much for the Sharks, no matter how amped up Joe Thornton and company might be able to get. With this era’s Canucks, healthy as they seemingly are, the only possible thing in their way is their own determination.
Tonight, the Canucks’ Conference Final opponent will be determined as the veteran Detroit Red Wings look to crush the eternally nascent playoff dreams of the San Jose Sharks. We’re not looking for predictions here, but simply your vote. Who would you rather see the Canucks match-up against?
We’ll take the Wings. Despite the adrenalin shot that a comeback from a 3-0 deficit will provide, they are aging and banged up. They also play a style that the Canucks generally have an easier time with. By contrast, the Sharks, when on their game, are bigger and more physical. And while this version of the Canucks is as adaptable as any we’ve seen, we’d prefer their chances against Detroit - the franchise they are trying to emulate.