If the Canucks look unmotivated, that’s probably by design

Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows celebrate as gently as possible.

Vancouver hockey fans rarely reach a consensus on anything, but I think we all agree that the Canucks looked unmotivated and disinterested on Monday night in Minnesota.

It was the Canucks’ 7th loss in 10 games, leading the cynics — who see everything as a conspiracy (including the rhetoric of any suspected non-cynics) — to freak. Some called for Alain Vigneault’s head once again, claiming the team had tuned him out, that his time here was done, and that the team should fire their coach 10 games from the postseason.

Level-headed thinking is not the strong suit of this pocket of Canuck nation.

But these folks have a point: if we’re assuming that Alain Vigneault is trying to wring the best and most hard-working performances out of his team — a reasonable assumption — he’s failing miserably these days. After the loss to the Wild, Canucks Army observed that, while the Canucks had 33 shots on goal, they only had 9 scoring chances. Against one of the NHL’s thinnest defense corps, it’s difficult to be that offensively inept. It’s as though the Canucks were actively trying to remain on the perimeter.

The Sedins, taking a high-octane shift.

But maybe they were. Do you know what players are less likely to sustain on the perimeter? Season-ending injuries. (Unless Johnny Boychuk’s around, amirite?)

Let’s be clear about something: the Canucks are going to finish second in the West. According to Sportsclubstats.com, the team has a 91% chance of wind up there, and an 8% chance of finishing first. (That should mean a 1% chance of finishing anywhere else, but considering these numbers have been rounded down, that chance is actually closer to zero.) In short, were Vancouver to put everything they had into the final 10 games, they would likely accomplish nothing, apart from thinning the reserves of healthy bodies available for a first-round matchup against the 7th seed.

The team is fully aware of how meaningless these games are. As Mike Gillis suggested two weeks ago, the Canucks are considering resting their players down the stretch. Purposefully icing an inferior lineup is, of course, one of those things you do when you don’t give a crap about winning.

Some have argued that the Canucks should be working to chase down the Blues, who have a fabulous record at home, but Vancouver will only see St. Louis if both teams make it through two gruelling rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s hardly a guarantee. The top two seeds have met in a Conference Final just 5 out of 20 times in the last 10 years. Plus, even if it happens, among the many lessons the Canucks learned in last year’s playoffs, especially the Stanley Cup Final, having healthy bodies beats having home ice advantage.

But that’s not to say the Canucks are throwing games, because they’re not. The team is still going out in pursuit of a win, they’re just not willing to sacrifice their bodies to do it.

Canuck forwards had a grand total of zero blocked shots against the Wild. Considering Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis appear to have been accidentally hit by three pucks apiece, a game in which no forwards get in the way of a shot from the opposition should raise an eyebrow. Considering it’s the second time in three games that this has occurred — it happened versus Phoenix as well — it’s worth looking at.

Frankly, after David Backes nearly broke his foot blocking a shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and after Chris Higgins did break his foot blocking a shot last postseason versus the Nashville Predators, and after Ryan Johnson broke his feet about fifty times during his tenure in Vancouver, you can see why the team might be unwilling to block shots right now. All season long, the Canucks have gone out of their way to stockpile depth players for the playoffs. It seems pretty stupid to start dipping into the reserves before the games even matter, doesn’t it? That’s like eating the canned goods in the fallout shelter.

It’s not just blocked shots, though. The Canucks are shying away from contact wherever possible. We saw Ryan Kesler dodge a shoulder-to-shoulder hit with Cal Clutterbuck on Monday, for instance. But it was an odd sight. Kesler was the one coming in with speed; that was his hit. Have you ever — seriously, ever in your life — seen Kesler bail on a check? Apart from his ongoing ab-off with Chris Higgins, this guy has zero regard for his body.

The Canucks are merely running out the string, making sure that everyone’s healthy and getting the players comfortable with the different player combinations they’ll have to resort to once everyone’s not.

(Obviously, without a quote here, all of this is pure speculation, but that is, of course, how the Canucks would prefer to keep it. No one within the organization is going to go on the record as saying the team has placed avoidance of injury ahead of winning hockey games on the priority scale. But I can tell you that someone told me off the record. So there’s that.)

Jeff Vinnick, Getty Images

That’s the other thing. Rest easy, torch-wieling mob on your way to Mason Raymond’s house: the line juggling that Alain Vigneault is doing is indicative of nothing. He’s not an idiot. He knows full well that Ryan Kesler’s best linemates are Chris Higgins and David Booth. But he needs to get Raymond going now while it doesn’t matter all that much that he’s not. And can he count on having all three members of the American Express line making it through the playoffs intact? Of course not, which is why now is a good time to try out the alternate line combinations he’ll no doubt have to resort to in April and, hopefully, May and June.

The same can be said for the blueline. We all remember the Stanley Cup Final and the complete disarray the pairings found themselves in after Dan Hamhuis got hurt. Kevin Bieksa hardly played with anyone else in 2011, and it showed. He looked out of sorts with Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts, he looked lost with Alex Edler, and he looked hopelessly lost with Keith Ballard. If Hamhuis gets injured again, even for a game, the Canucks can’t risk one of their top defenders playing the whole game from the woods.

Now, I’ve disagreed with some of the Canucks’ outside-the-box thinking in the past. I maintain, for instance, that making roster decisions based on contract flexibility rather than merit is unfair, and I didn’t like the way the Canucks took advantage of player try-out contracts to beat the veteran minimum in the preseason. I’m even on the fence about this move — effectively encouraging the players to play lazy hockey for an entire month seems like a good way to instil negative habits.

But, while these schemes are sketchy, there’s no arguing that they’re wise strategies if the primary goal is to ensure that the team has fresher players and more of them come April.

I wouldn’t get too concerned about the way the Canucks are playing. You may think they don’t look ready for the playoffs, but the fact that they’re still healthy says otherwise.

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52 comments

  1. peanutflower
    March 20, 2012

    Here’s what your friend NucksMisconduct had to say about Bieksa, and it’s just so true:

    “I liked that Kevin Bieksa was a sporting chap when he could have pounded Nick Johnson after jerseying him, and he did block 3 shots. But, while only credited with one giveaway, he was making a bad decision more than once that almost cost. Thank goodness Dan Hamhuis can read the bugger like no other on the team. Thats one of his biggest strengths, his smarts, and Hammer made more than one play to bail out his more swashbuckling partner. ”

    I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Bieksa can’t really play with anyone else. I guess it’s bad if Hamhuis gets hurt, but I haven’t seen Dan go anywhere near throwing a hip check in a long time. it’s kind of scary that Bieksa only works with one other player. On the bright side, what a pair! Of defenceman I mean.

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  2. Scott McKenzie
    March 20, 2012

    “Purposefully icing an inferior lineup …”

    Well, that explains Raymond being back in the lineup.

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  3. Hips
    March 20, 2012

    DAMMIT STOP BEING SO RATIONAL.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 20, 2012

      If it makes you feel any better, I will help you flip the pool if the team goes out in four.

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      Rating: +27 (from 27 votes)
      • Chicky
        March 20, 2012

        Lift with your knees, not with your back! Someone reminded me of this recently.

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      • Principal Scudworth
        March 20, 2012

        they’re rioting at a twelfth grade level!

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      • Nee
        March 21, 2012

        This could also partly explain the way BOS, DET, and NYR are playing.

        But isn’t it also playing with fire? Playing not ot get hurt for this length of time could really get the players out of sync, no?

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  4. By-Tor
    March 20, 2012

    “…encouraging the players to play lazy hockey for an entire month seems like a good way to instil negative habits.”

    I would assume AV has thought of that, and more than likely is driving them harder during practice. This team is absolutely geared towards winning the Cup. After last year’s disappointment, they will be waning it even more.

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    • Taco
      March 20, 2012

      waning it? That doesn’t sound to good.

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  5. Brosef Stalin
    March 20, 2012

    Well, I guess this makes me feel better about the Canucks total bed defecating of late.

    Also, there appears to be a double negative in the 12th paragraph (second sentence). Quick! Before the trolls appear!

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 20, 2012

      Huh. Looks like a word wound up next to its replacement instead of in place of it. Good eye, thanks.

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  6. Joel Willoughby
    March 20, 2012

    AV is a Zen Master…

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  7. akidd
    March 20, 2012

    gee whiz, harrison. i agree completely. management can’t come out and say it because fans are still paying hundreds of dollars for seats. and the business of hockey media isn’t going to just give up on 3 weeks of advertising revenue either.

    but if you want to win(and i believe that’s what folks want) then it is absolutely the right course of action. gillis on 1040 just said it does take more than one game or 10 minutes for a team to find its form but the way he worded it led me to believe that he feels it doesn’t take much more than that.

    i do wonder though, if it’s all a freebie right now, why isn’t kassian being given a bit more of a twirl.

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  8. WorldTravels
    March 20, 2012

    IUnfortunately, the Canucks injury issues last yr did not happen between trade deadline – end of season (except Mannys freak injury), Canucks injuries came during the playoffs. Are they going to dog it through the 1st round and hope they come out with 4 wins?

    This type of situation is the kiss of death. Assuming an action in the short term will pay off long term, despite common sense. ALL of the players have said ‘there is no switch, you can’t suddenly turn it on for the playoffs’. There is data to back me up. There are but 2 current Canucks players who have been able to ‘turn it on’ for the playoffs since the lockout. Salo, Burrows (last yr). The only 2 players who’ve had increased PPG during the playoffs.

    If Canucks can’t do it now, there is serious concern they won’t do it in 3 1/2 weeks.

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  9. BakerGeorgeT
    March 20, 2012

    I suppose if you paid $200 to see the Canucks Habs game you feel much better about life after reading this article. Oh wait, you don’t? Well, you irrational being, it’s all about winning in the playoffs, which is the team’s only goal this year and you should have read the fine print

    “Team will perform as long as necessary and then shut it down until it’s necessary again. You are warned — signed Francesco Aquillini.”

    (I wish there was a fine print button here :( )

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    • Daniel Wagner
      March 20, 2012

      What is the team’s goal? Is it to win the Cup or entertain their customers?

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      • peanutflower
        March 21, 2012

        Seriously, I don’t care at all about the entertainment value until the end. I don’t go and see the games because it’s easily a grand from Victoria, and so if I’m unhappy I just turn off the TV, wait until IWTG comes out, make a few comments, go back and adjust my lucky Canuck paraphernalia into a better more win-inducing configuration and wait until the next game. I have my special playoff stuff ready to go, but honestly, I couldn’t care less about right now. Strangely. I don’t think I can remember actually feeling quite this way. Grade 12 maybe. In June.

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  10. shoes
    March 20, 2012

    In the words of the immortal Bert….It is what it is…..lets just enjoy the ride. I am just about as disturbed by the acceptance of hockey fans, media, players and owners of the NHL’s latest gambit in trying to achieve parity…..not nice for the game and particularly not nice for a couple of teams that built for speed.

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  11. bob
    March 20, 2012

    In the words of Kelly Hrudy “It’s hard to get pumped to play (INSERT CRAPPY TEAM HERE)”

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  12. Chris the Curmudgeon
    March 20, 2012

    Bad habits are hard to break. I’m not sure I like the idea of playing lazily at the end of the season, then expecting to turn on the jets like flipping a switch. This team had very little to play for near the end last year with first in the west basically locked up, but they still came out and played. Daniel Sedin had 20 points in March last year, Henrik had 17, and the team went 13-2 in that month. And that formula, of trying to go out and win every game, got them to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. One would think that the team would try to emulate their strategy from last year, rather than try a whole new one like resting players down the stretch, and risking entering the playoffs with no offensive rhythm or chemistry. This looks like a recipe for an upset to me.

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  13. Nick
    March 20, 2012

    It’s fair to say that level-headed thinking is ALSO not a strong suit of Vancouver sports reporters and show hosts.

    These guys overreact far more than most fans.

    Several times after a regular-season win streak, one of the local papers has run a Stanley Cup themed front page photo and story. And even more often, when the team is playing under .500 for a stretch, the same guys shred the players mercilessly.

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  14. Josh
    March 20, 2012

    Everybody should read Tony Gallagher’s column in the Province, and ask themselves if that is a sane, stable reaction about this team.

    If the answer is yes, go drink battery acid. Please.

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    • Josh
      March 20, 2012

      Disclaimer:
      Don’t actually drink battery acid. That’s bad for you.

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      • Rituro
        March 20, 2012

        *pauses mid-drink*

        …wait, what?

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        • Josh
          March 21, 2012

          Oops…..

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        • Phileo99
          March 21, 2012

          aw snap! you went and read TonyG’s article? Again? stop it w/ dat S*** !

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      • Harrison Mooney
        March 20, 2012

        Thanks for adding the disclaimer. Anyone who qualifies to drink the battery acid probably doesn’t have the sense to know they shouldn’t.

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      • stathead
        March 21, 2012

        But a more important disclaimer: Don’t actually read Tony Gallagher’s column. That’s bad for you.

        And bad for everyone around you when you finally snap…

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        • Chicky
          March 21, 2012

          That column is so bad, it makes all of Kevin Weekes’s suits look awesome. That’s probably the biggest piece of garbage I’ve read by him in awhile. Sadly, I can’t get that 5 mins back.

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  15. Peter
    March 20, 2012

    It’s better to rest the players then to drain them out like last year when AV just wore out Kester in the last 10 games so A.V the head coach can have the Presidents’ Trophy to add to his resume.
    The way the players are playing, A.V will need it.
    A.V is a fake as to one for all and all for one
    for A.V. is all for one and one for himself.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 20, 2012

      Ha! (I’m assuming this was a joke)

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  16. Cattreefever
    March 20, 2012

    Karma will bite these contact-shy losers in the ass.

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  17. Lenny
    March 20, 2012

    Their story line now is not different from the Flyers’ fate last year. Hope we don’t get cleaned out in the 2nd round.

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  18. seethruhead
    March 20, 2012

    I have a totally different theory about why the Canucks are playing this way.
    In high school, you ever have words with someone, maybe in gym class, and things break up. But you know you’re going to fight. Inevitable. Probably at lunch, if not, then for sure after school. You’re not going to back down, you’re not trying to hide, but you have a massive pit in your stomach and the day goes by in a bit of a daze. You’re preparing for the fight you know is coming. That is what the Canucks feel right now – every game in the playoffs is as intense as a fight, and they are going to have to battle just as brutally as last year. So right now, they are in that period before the bell rings, and they don’t seem right. But they show up for the fight.

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    • H.C. CanuckFan in T.O.
      March 21, 2012

      Well put seethruhead.

      Solid article Mooney. Not a lot of people understand how much is truly at stake (money wise) in the playoffs. The kind of approach talked about here is most definitely led from the top down IMO.
      …..and it’s not like they have to relearn how to block a shot or make a hit. I for one, am not concerned.

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  19. Brent
    March 20, 2012

    Lets see how they play against Chicago. If they come out with a mediocre effort THEN it is time to panic!

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    • Canuck in Oz
      March 21, 2012

      I can’t completely agree with the panic button, as much fun as it is to push it. But I also have a feeling that there’s a good chance the Canucks could kick the living suitcase out of the Hawks. Perhaps that’s just dinner digesting but seriously…I think this is the game that they start taking things seriously…

      For example, Lu has spent the last two games as backup – maybe he’s had a visit from the Ghost of Playoffs Future, with the thought of #35 in net for game 1, and that would certainly motivate. Also, the thought that the Canucks have been playing to the oppositions’ level. No disrespect to Columbus, Montreal et al but those games should have been smashings…and finally…it’s Chicago. Who, on the team, wouldn’t want to beat holy hell out of the Hawks? Anyway, we’ll see soon enough hey.

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      • Brent
        March 21, 2012

        That was sort of my point. It is Chicago, lots of history. They should easily be motivated to play hard against these guys. Plus it is in Chicago, a place where Luongo has had some issues. So it is a good primer for the playoffs. They should bring their A-game. If not, then and only then, will I panic, but only slightly.

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  20. BBoone
    March 21, 2012

    Good article. I don’t understand why the Canucks do not call up a couple of players from the Wolves and rotate some veterans through the press box for mental rehab purposes. Baseball does it all the time. The idea is indeed to win in the playoffs , not now. The coaches only mission is to make sure as many players as possible are properly rested , physically and emotionally for the 4 series grind to win the cup.

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  21. Brian
    March 21, 2012

    I’ve been saying this for a while. They’re not hitting, they’re not forechecking, they’re not blocking shots. Am I the only one that noticed that they’re not forechecking? They look disinterested, yes, but they’re waiting for the playoffs. This much is clear. I’ll be more worried if they go down 0-2 in the first round. For now, it doesn’t matter. I want to see them play well, but they’re locked into the two seed. This is the first sane article I’ve seen on the Canucks’ slump.

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  22. bergberg
    March 21, 2012

    Yeah, I don’t know why the fans are getting to upset. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like everyone is still hanging on to last years disappointment. I think its time to move on. Our team isn’t playing their best hockey. Whooptie-do!

    Things could be worse. We could be Toronto Maple Leaf fans.

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  23. sarah
    March 21, 2012

    I would hit the panic button, but that would mean expending too much energy, I’m saving it for the playoffs so I can hit it with a real vigour if necessary.

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  24. J21
    March 21, 2012

    Health should be priority #1 — I think this makes sense. Health is what did them in last year, no matter what xenophobic spin the media wants to put on it about gutless, cheap Swedes versus noble Canadians who “want it more”. So any measure to stay healthy is, on its face, a good one.

    That said: “Let’s be clear about something: the Canucks are going to finish second in the West. According to Sportsclubstats.com, the team has a 91% chance of wind up there, and an 8% chance of finishing first.

    So the strategy would make sense from this point on. But of course the only reason that the team is solidly in second place is because the Canucks spiraled into this slump to begin with. They were comfortably in first with their destiny in their own hands until they began playing pretty crappily. Second-place was by no means the fatalistic result until very recently, and I doubt they decided to start placing priority on health early enough that it was completely at the expense of their then-advantageous position. (If they did decide to basically drop first place in an effort to stay healthy, I sort of commend their balls — that’s really putting your money where your mouth is in terms of the “playoffs are everything” mentality).

    Moreover, as most will point out, the “playing crappily” part goes all the way back to December 2011. The points they racked up since then — frighteningly the overwhelming majority of them — were thanks to a ton of OT results and good goaltending. This is not a team like last year’s that sprinted so far out ahead of the pack with such dominance that they stopped by the side of the road for a beer and a cigarette. This is a team that struggled early, had one good run, then began struggling again, but found itself out in front of a weak division. While health preservation is good for anyone, I’d be equally if not more worried about their game right now.

    After all, why would trying to prevent injury lead to them suddenly becoming unable to make or receive a pass? Or have a bad power play?

    All that said, if you actually got some word from within the organization, that does make me feel a little bit better.

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  25. Phileo99
    March 21, 2012

    I disagree with the notion that 2nd in the West is a lock.
    Stars currently have 85 pts, and based on their last10, are on pace for 99pts. They could also go undefeated in their remaining games, good for 103 pts.
    The Avs are on pace for 96pts., but could end up with 99pts.

    Based on their poor record, I am no longer projecting the Canucks to finish with 110 pts. Now I am projecting about 103pts. But the canucks may wind up collecting less than 6pts in their remaining games, which opens it up for Dallas to overtake them.

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  26. Chicky
    March 21, 2012

    Ok, the whole Tony Gallagher article blows, and I suspect they’re deliberately being contrary to PITB, as you guys are associated with the Sun.

    Which makes me think that his article was to generate actual readership, and I’m peeved, I’ll never get those three minutes back from reading that load of hogwash… but I digress.

    Is TG a wee bit intimidated by the rational minds of PITB? :D

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 21, 2012

      I highly doubt that Tony Gallagher even gives us a moment of thought.

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      • Chicky
        March 21, 2012

        Darn you and your rational mind! LOL Well, in any case, you’re much more fun to read.

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  27. Prophet
    March 21, 2012

    Anyone who’s ever played a video game in the last twenty years (and it’s plenty apparent old man Tony G never has) knows that to beat the FINAL BOSS, you need to save every power up, smart bomb, and all of your extra lives because the final boss has like a GAZILLION hit points. The last game, you cackled with hysterical evil laughter as you kicked ass on level 9 killing 100% of the little monsters by recklessly spraying your limited ammo autocannon and bombing everything that moves. Then comes the FINAL BOSS, and you realized you’re down to a pea shooter and last life before the inevitable “GAME OVER” flashes on the screen as tears stream down your cheeks… Do you want to continue?

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 21, 2012

      This.

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  28. Canucks fan from Blighty
    March 21, 2012

    Good God. You’ll be telling us the world is round next. Well that’s just a step too far for me to believe.

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  29. Chris T
    March 21, 2012

    Small nitpick (I’m sorry but I have too!) – first paragraph it’s “uninterested”, not “disinterested”.
    Other than that, great work as always, I’m a bit nervous but the game tonight eased my fears a bit. Still, would like to see more offense!

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    • Harrison Mooney
      March 21, 2012

      Nitpick heard. But I’ll have you know both are acceptable.

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