Coming into tonight’s game, much of the setup focused on the potential for an emotional letdown for the Canucks, following the emotional high of Tuesday night’s Game 7 thriller. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead, we got an old-fashioned regular letdown; this game was flat-out boring. That said, maybe it’s what we needed. Could we have handled another crazy game? I’ve been drinking Gatorade since Tuesday just to get my electrolytes back up. Thanks to Nashville for giving my heart the night off. If the last playoff contest had make-you-sick-to-your-stomach intensity, this game was the Pepto-Bismol of hockey games. I watched this game.
After the game, Nashville coach Barry Trotz told reporters, ”You didn’t see the Nashville Predators playing their best tonight.” While some balked at what might be the understatement of the year, the Anaheim Ducks were no doubt comforted. The Predators team we saw tonight didn’t look capable of beating the Grand Rapids Griffins, let alone a dangerous Ducks team. They won 3 of 22 faceoffs in the first period. They had 11 shots through two. Only Shea Weber had more than 3 shots in the game. They seemed about as interesting in scoring as Joel & Ethan Coen directing No Country For Old Men. They even seemed relatively uninterested in slashing the Sedins, the NHL’s Swedish twin piñatas, or twiñatas.
That said, Pekka Rinne was some kind of wonderful, and he kept his team in this one. He made 29 saves, most of them with a catching mitt that seemed capable of swallowing all that was and is and is to come. It quickly became apparent that Pekka Rinne’s glove was where scoring chances went to die, and people began to speculate about what other wonders might be #ThingsinRinnesGlove: the Ark of the Covenant, Waldo, The Event Horizon, Carmen Sandiego, the cast of Sliders, Michael Jackson’s childhood, the 2010 Stanley Cup winning puck, maybe even the love that the Black-Eyed Peas have been looking for? At one point, Kara Thrace flew out of there in a brand new Viper. Anyway, all’s I’m saying is, the Canucks should shoot somewhere else.
Roberto Luongo was good too, if anybody cares. He eschewed the Snack Goal principle and registered a shutout, but Mike Fisher’s shorthanded breakaway was the only big save he had to make. He was as good as one could expect and hardly the story, which was a nice change of pace.
Not only did Chris “Kiss Huggins” Higgins open the series scoring for the second time this postseason with his game-winning goal, but he was tops among forwards in hits, with four. Kiss Huggins just wants to get close to you.
Higgins may have scored the goal, but the play is started by Kevin Bieksa (tonight’s second star, in a team-high 24:59), who draws Kevin Klein to him, then steps around the Nashville defender to feed Maxim Lapierre and start a 3-on-1. It’s a smart play by Bieksa, but even smarter when you realize that he drew Klein to him by shouting “I loved you in A Fish Called Wanda!“ As Klein stepped in to politely explain he’s not that Kevin Kline, as he often does, Bieksa pulled the puck past him. Oldest trick in the book.
I thought tonight was another strong game from the Dead Line of Lapierre, Higgins, and Hansen. The Canucks have effectively been without a consistent third line since Manny Malhotra’s eye injury broke up the pairing of he, Torres, and Hansen, but Alain Vigneault may have found something in this new trio. They play hard, they hit, and they cause some delectable chaos. The line generated four takeaways and spent much of the night with the puck, maybe because Maxim Lapierre won all six of his faceoffs. He appears to have been “made for the playoffs,” as they say. Kudos to his parents for selflessly conceiving him for our benefit.
Speaking of faceoffs, the Canucks won 40 of 66 tonight, and this may be a series key that’s been overlooked. Nashville was 18th in faceoffs during the regular season. They did well in the circle versus Anaheim, but the Ducks were the fourth-worst team in the league in this regard. The Canucks are the best, led by Ryan Kesler, who went 19-for-30 tonight. Now, Chicago was able to mitigate Kesler’s faceoff prowess by continually pitting him against Jonathan Toews, who was basically his statistical equal during the regular season (and his superior in the playoffs). However, the Predators don’t have anyone like that. Jerred Smithson had an identical regular season faceoff percentage (57.4%), but he took 500 fewer draws and Barry Trotz is currently playing him on the wing. Tonight, Kesler lined up mainly against either Mike Fisher or David Legwand, who, at 65th and 70th in faceoffs, respectively, are unformidable. Legwand was 4-of-18 on the night, punctuated by an 0-for-10 showing against Ryan Kesler. Fisher did better, winning 7 of 11 against Kesler, and 10 of 24 overall, but he can hardly be counted on long-term: he lost all eight faceoffs he took in the defensive zone.
Keith Ballard continues to baffle. He only played eleven minutes, less than Aaron Rome, as usual, but he managed to get noticed thrice in limited time. Once, on a first period rush through center, when he fired a shot on Pekka Rinne then bowled over Ryan Suter to get at his own rebound. Once, late in the third, when he fell down retrieving a puck in the corner, and got up just in time to trip his man and take an egregiously ill-timed penalty. And, once when he threw what appeared to be a huge, seemingly legal hipcheck on Jordin Tootoo, only have it called a penalty by an official that must not like Keith Ballard. I wondered, at that point, if the Predators knew Alain Vigneault was reffing the game. Anyway, the penalty was called clipping after the official claimed, in a refreshing bit of irony in this headshot era, that Ballard got too low.
Great point by Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner: Alex Burrows is one of the best at catching pucks. For evidence, Cherry showed the game-winning goal from Tuesday night and a similar instance from tonight. We at PITB have observed that the entire top line’s been working to develop this catch n’ drop over the season, in order to utilize the undefended space three feet above the ice and higher. We talked about this after the final game in the regular season, after Burrows scored a goal versus the Calgary Flames on a catch n’ drop.
Not everything was sunshine and roses tonight, though. While you can give all the credit in the world to Pekka Rinne (it would likely fit in his glove), the Canucks really should have been able to put at least one more past him, especially when they were given five powerplay opportunities. The Canucks are now scoreless in their last fourteen man advantages. What’s going on? One issue is the play of Mikael Samuelsson, still bothered by that sports hernia. He simply refuses to shoot the puck. Why Alex Edler hasn’t been returned to the first PP unit is beyond me. Newell Brown claims the percentages are better with Samuelsson, but I would counter that the percentages are better when your shooters shoot, and that the percentages can’t get much worse than 0 for your last 14. The power play had 13 shots tonight; Samuelsson had none. One of the strengths of this unit is two point men who can go slap happy. Samuelsson isn’t slapping anything.
He isn’t much better as the top line right winger, where his zero shots stand out like a sore thumb. The Sedins had 12 shots tonight, six apiece for both Daniel and Henrik. It was a shooty night for the top line, and yet, somehow, Mikael Samuelsson, the shootiest shooter around, couldn’t muster a single one? Again: He’s the top line right winger and the power play quarterback and he had zero shots. That doesn’t happen unless you’re actively avoiding shots, and since when did Mikael Samuelsson become Jenny McCarthy?
You have to imagine the Predators will be better in game 2, although it would be mighty impressive if they found a way to play worse.
And finally, Mats Sundin attended tonight’s affair for some reason. Scott Oake even interviewed him in what appeared to be the catacombs of Rogers Arena. Rumour has it Gillis really wanted Sundin there, even going so far as to offer him 10 seats over 2 games. Sundin waffled, but he showed up halfway in. Mind you, by then, his seats had been pro-rated to 7.
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