2013 Playoff Preview: Round One, Canucks vs Sharks

In the wild, orca whales tend to kill and eat sharks, including great white sharks. In the battle of Free Willy versus Jaws, Willy would win.

On the ice, however, it’s a lot tougher to call. The Vancouver Canucks will face the San Jose Sharks in round one of the playoffs, with the first game starting in just a couple hours. Normally, this is when we’d look at the season series to see how the two teams match up, but the season series isn’t particularly useful this time around.

Sure, the Sharks won all three of their meetings this season, but those games came before Derek Roy and Ryan Kesler were in the lineup and only one of those games featured the Sharks’ Brent Burns at forward, where he’s excelled. Also, Cory Schneider started all three of those games and he won’t be in net for game one of the playoffs, with Roberto Luongo slated to start with Schneider our due to injury.

The two teams have changed significantly throughout the season, with the Sharks shedding multiple players before the trade deadline and the Canucks continually rotating injured players in and out of the lineup. So, what can we expect from these two teams? How do they matchup? Let’s break it down as best we can:

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Hot or Cold: who’s streaking into the playoffs?

It’s not always the best team that wins in the playoffs, but the hottest team. If the best team in the NHL always went on to win the Stanley Cup, we wouldn’t bother with the playoffs and we would replace the Presidents’ Trophy with the Cup. After all, 82 games (or even 48) should be enough to separate the wheat from the chaff and decide who is the best in the league.

Let’s face it, very few people truly believe that. In hockey, we celebrate difficulty. To win the Stanley Cup, you have to go through the long grind of the playoffs and survive, facing the top teams in the league night after night and proving that you’re better than they are.

The team that survives isn’t always the most talented team or the most well-built team. It’s the team that hits a hot streak at the right time, avoids injuries, and takes advantage of their chances. Some teams ride a hot goaltender all the way to the Cup. Others have their offence click into place and light up their opposition. With that in mind, we’re going to look at who on the Canucks is on a streak heading into the playoffs, hot or cold. But we can’t do it alone (particularly since we barely believe such streaks matter), so we’ve enlisted some help.

In honour of NHL 94′s 20th anniversary, we’re please to bring in special guest analyst (and noted streak fetishist), Ron Barr.*

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Edmonton Oilers, April 27, 2013

The Canucks closed out the 48-game 2013 regular season the same way it began: by surrendering seven goals in a humiliating loss. Now, granted, this one isn’t quite as concerning as the season-opener against the Anaheim Ducks, which featured the full Canucks lineup, save Ryan Kesler. This time around, the Canucks flipped the script, icing a lineup that featured Ryan Kesler and little else. Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, Alex Burrows, and Daniel Sedin all sat this one out.

So did Henrik Sedin, although not officially. The Canucks’ captain started this game between Steve Pinizzotto and Dale Weise, and we were excited to watch him spend the whole game there before demanding a trade to Buffalo, as one does after such deployment. But instead, Henrik just left the game. As it turned out, he was only dressed so as to protect his iron man streak, and once he had done what he needed with one shift, he promptly suited up and called it a night. Like Henrik Sedin, I watched this game.

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Canucks get Round 1 date with San Jose Sharks, who are, we remind you, bad

With their loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, the Sharks close out the 2013 season as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. This means a first-round playoff date with the third seed, your Vancouver Canucks.

We’ll have plenty of coverage leading up to this series (as well as during it), just as we always do, but for tonight, we would simply like to remind you of something.

This post originally appeared on May 13, 2011, in advance of the Canucks’ Western Conference Final series versus the Sharks two years ago. It was true then and it’s true now: the San Jose Sharks are bad.

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Last-minute cramming: a 2013 Canucks season review

In a sense, it’s been a long season. But in another sense (the literal sense), it’s been a short season, a whirlwind. It’s possible that you missed it all. But now the playoffs are here and we’d hate for you to be so far behind you can’t enjoy them. Here’s a quick review of the 2013 season.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Anaheim Ducks, April 26, 2013

If this was Roberto Luongo’s last hurrah in Vancouver, it wasn’t a particularly good one. After playing their best game of the season against their hated rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks settled in and played a thoroughly mediocre game against their mildly-disliked non-rival, the Anaheim Ducks. With both teams stuck in their positions in the Western Conference, with no way to improve or injure their place in the standings, neither team had much to play for.

Still, it’s entirely possible that this was Luongo’s last start as a Canuck in Vancouver, which should have been some motivation. While the Canucks seemed to wake up in the third period and made a concerted effort to win the game for Luongo, by then it was too little, too late, two-one. And then three-one. I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Chicago Blackhawks, April 22, 2013

There’s a lot to take away from this game, but let’s begin this recap with something no one can EVER take away: with the win versus the Chicago Blackhwks, the Canucks clinched their fifth consecutive Northwest Division title! Five in a row, baby!

Say what you will about the division title. Sure, it’s as easy to get as your first Pokemon. But the Canucks were the 1956-1960 Montreal Canadiens of the Northwest Division: that’s a half-decade of pure, uncut domination. I watched the Canucks cement a mother-flipping dynasty when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Detroit Red Wings, April 20, 2013

Throughout the past few months, we have generally emphasized process over results. In the middle of the season, the Canucks were generally outplaying their opponents, but couldn’t string wins together, leading to all sorts of consternation among Canucks nation. We counselled patience, as the Canucks’ process seemed to be sounds, producing positive puck possession, even as it didn’t produce results.

Over the last month, however, the process has been questionable at best. The Canucks have been outshot by some pretty terrible teams, looked lackadaisical in their own end, and struggled to create quality scoring chances. And, of course, now they’re getting the results.

I give up. Nothing makes sense anymore. Heck, the Red Wings might miss the playoffs while the Blue Jackets get in. Up is down, left is right, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. The only thing that hasn’t changed: I watched this game.

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Canucks to host one of six outdoor games next season in NHL’s stadium series

When the Vancouver Canucks debuted their Vancouver Millionaires jerseys back in March, we wondered aloud if the original plan had been to debut the historic duds versus the Ottawa Senators, the team the Millionaires defeated back in 1915 for Vancouver’s lone Stanley Cup.

No, we were told when asked (proving the worst thing you can ever do is ask), that had never been the plan.

That said, if the Canucks did want to sport their heritage jerseys versus the Senators, it would appear that next March will yield a golden opportunity. According to multiple reports, the league is planning to go from one outdoor game to six in 2013-14, with the sixth and final game in what’s being called a stadium series happening just next door to Rogers Arena in BC Place. Vancouver will obviously be one of the two teams. The other club: the Ottawa Senators, who have been sore about the way we stole Cyclone Taylor and then their Stanley Cup for 99 long years.

GRUDGE MATCH.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at St. Louis Blues, April 16, 2013

It took 65 minutes, but the Canucks finally got some good, clean looks on Brian Elliott. Granted, these looks came in the shootout, where you have to trade good clean looks with the opposition, but still. Let’s call this a moral victory. Considering the difficulty the Canucks had mustering shots on goal, let alone shots from areas where Elliott might have been remotely challenged, we can call breakaways the Blues were forced to allow them after overtime a win.

Granted, it’s a lot harder to call the result of the shootout a win, since the Canucks failed to score on the Blues as many times as the Blues scored on Schneider. Looking at it this way, it’s harder to call the shootout a victory. I’d be tempted to call it a loss, even.

I watched this game.

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Breakdowning Derek Roy’s first goal as a Canuck

Canuck fans didn’t quite know what to make of Alain Vigneault’s decision to play Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy on the same line in Nashville. If the acquisition of Roy was motivated by a desire to make the Canucks deeper down the middle, playing a member of Vancouver’s recently upgraded stable of centres on the wing doesn’t exactly jibe with that plan.

That said, you can see why Vigneault might want to try it now. With 10 games to go in the regular season, he was handed the tall task of trying to get familiar with a team that suddenly had Derek Roy and a rebuilt Ryan Kesler on it. The addition of these two gives him a lot to assess in a short time, and on Monday, he began an assessment of the potential chemistry between the pair, with Kesler in the middle between Roy and Jannik Hansen.

Five minutes into the game, the chemistry experiment paid off as Derek Roy got his first as a Canuck to push the club’s early lead to two. But make no mistake — it wasn’t exactly chemistry that led to this goal. It was the only thing better than chemistry: terrible, terrible defensive coverage. Take a look:

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Nashville Predators, April 15, 2013

The big story heading into this game was Ryan Kesler getting moved to the wing alongside Derek Roy in order to load up the top-six with offensive talent. It turned out that story was a big, fat lie and everyone who told that story was just a big, fat liar and a generally terrible person. Just awful.

What actually happened was that Derek Roy moved to the wing alongside Ryan Kesler. Completely different.

Some chemistry experiments lead to a slow descent into moral ambiguity. Thankfully, the chemistry experiment that threw Kesler and Roy together produced offence instead of methamphetamine. Still, I suffered from withdrawal symptoms after I watched this game.

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Who would the Canucks rather face in the playoffs?

With 8 games remaining in the regular season, it seems fairly certain that the Canucks will once again win the Northwest division. The Canucks are trending in the right direction with the addition of Derek Roy and the return of Ryan Kesler and are now six points up on the second place Minnesota Wild, who have lost four of their last five games.

Since the Canucks aren’t likely to catch the Anaheim Ducks, who are seven points ahead, in the standings, the Canucks will finish as the third seed in the Western Conference and face the sixth seed in the first round of the playoffs. At this point, any one of six teams could finish sixth in the West: the Kings, Sharks, Blues, Wild, Red Wings, and Coyotes, with the outside possibility of the Stars or Blue Jackets.

So, which of those teams would the Canucks rather play in the first round? Who would they rather avoid?

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Calgary Flames, April 10, 2013

In the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s classic bout, the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali famously used what came to be called the rope-a-dope strategy. Early in the fight, he provoked Foreman into an all-out attack, but absorbed the blows by leaning against the ropes, allowing their elasticity to distribute the kinetic energy. Once Foreman had tired himself out and began making mistakes, Ali pressed the counter-attack and ended up winning the fight by knockout in the eighth round.

Against the Flames, the Canucks seemed to employ a similar rope-a-dope strategy. In this case, Roberto Luongo was the rope and the Flames were the dopes, as the Canucks coasted through much of the game before seeming to flip a switch in the third period, capitalizing on the Flames’ errors, and scoring three quick goals to win the game.

Unlike the Rumble in the Jungle, this game won’t go down in history as one of the greatest sporting events of all time. Even still, I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Phoenix Coyotes, April 8, 2013

The Canucks have been in a lot of low-scoring games lately, but this one felt different. Prior games have been snoozefests — actually, scratch that. A snoozefest sounds amazing. Think about it: an entire festival dedicated to sleeping? That’s a yes. Sleep is fantastic. Snoozefest is the wrong word. But the prior games have been mundane.

This one wasn’t. The Canucks dominated the Coyotes for the majority of the night, peppering Mike Smith like he was a Caesar salad and they were the waiter at an Olive Garden. With a lesser goaltender in the opposition end, this might have been a blowout. But Smith kept the Coyotes close. By the end of the night, Phoenix had come to rely on him so thoroughly that, when he left the goal for the extra attacker, they got confused and scared and scored on themselves. Related: I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Calgary Flames, April 6, 2013

There are two ways for Canuck fans to look at this game: on the one hand, you could be upset with the way the Canucks played, which would be fair since they didn’t play well. They were sloppy from top to bottom, making lazy, easily intercepted outlet passes, surrendering prime scoring chances, and forcing Cory Schneider into a virtuoso performance to preserve the victory.

On the other hand, they still won, and handily. Why? Beecause, as bad as they were, they still weren’t worse than the Calgary Flames on a good night. It’s tougher to be upset with Vancouver when Calgary exists to remind you that it could be much, much worse. With that thought hanging in the back of my mind, I was extremely content when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Edmonton Oilers, April 4, 2013

Don’t let the 4-0 score fool you — this was a very different game than the last time the Canucks faced the Oilers. For one thing, the team that scored four goals was the Canucks, which was nice. For another, Cory Schneider made one save. He didn’t do that last time. He followed it up with several more, too.

But if there’s one stat that really demonstrates how different this one was from last time, consider the following: On Friday night, when the Canucks faced the Oilers, the game was effectively over by 7:15. This time around, the game hadn’t even begun by 7:30. Just think about that. That’s some improvement right there. I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at San Jose Sharks, April 1, 2013

The best thing that can be said about this game is that it wasn’t as bad as the last one. Like their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, the Canucks got soundly outplayed by the San Jose Sharks and similarly succumbed to their opposition thanks to a flurry of goals in a short period of time.

Unlike their game against the Oilers, however, the Canucks actually showed some gumption, battling back by creating scoring chances, scoring goals, and coming just short of tying the game in the final minutes. Thanks to that, it was a lot more enjoyable when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Edmonton Oilers, March 30, 2013

This game must have been a massive relief to Canucks fans who were tired of the low-scoring, defensive snoozefests that the Canucks have been known for recently. For once, the Canucks didn’t sit on a one-goal lead and bore fans to tears. This game was wide open right from puck drop, with goals galore. Heck, even one of Wayne Gretzky’s seemingly unbreakable records was broken, tonight! What more could you ask for?

Wait, you wanted the Canucks to score? Oh.

Well, crud. That sure didn’t happen. I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Columbus Blue Jackets, March 26, 2013

This was easily the worst game of the season. It’s not that the Canucks were bad at all — in fact, they dominated the Blue Jackets from start to finish — but the entertainment value of this game was nearly non-existent. This game was duller than a beach ball. Construction workers had to turn off the game on the radio so that they could operate heavy machinery. It was like Waiting for Godot with less Godot.

I regret to say that I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Colorado Avalanche, March 24, 2013

How undermanned are the Canucks right now? When the announcement was made that Dale Weise had a shoulder injury and wouldn’t play against the Avalanche on Sunday night, it felt like a devastating blow.

Weise joined Ryan Kesler, David Booth, and Zack Kassian on the injured list. Manny Malhotra is done for the season. Steve Pinizzotto is still out with an unknown illness. Alex Edler finished of the second game off his two-game suspension. The Canucks were forced to trot out the absurd third line of Alex Burrows, Andrew Ebbett, and Keith Ballard, placing Chris Higgins with the Sedins.

Yes, Ballard once again needed to play as a forward for the ramshackle Canucks. Fortunately, they were playing the Coloardo Avalanche, the last place team in the Western Conference, who have bigger problems than having to play a defenceman as a forward: at one point in this game, they had Shane O’Brien on their first unit on the powerplay. Yikes. I felt a twinge of sympathy when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Los Angeles Kings, March 23, 2013

On one hand, Alain Vigneault has to be frustrated by the Canucks’ continued struggle to ice something resembling a competitive lineup. Thursday night, the club was so shorthanded they were forced to deploy Keith Ballard as a top-nine forward, and somehow they managed to lose another key component in that one after Alex Edler was suspended two games for colliding with Mike “I step in front of cars and sue the drivers” Smith.

But on the other hand, the shorthandedness of Vigneault’s club means they have no choice but to go into full-blown shutdown mode, and I think we all know that Alain Vigneault descends into hockey vampirism — sucking the life out of games in order to survive — with unbridled, abject glee. The Canucks were unyielding in their defensive posture in this one, scoring early, then nursing a 1-0 lead so completely that, after the game, they had to burp it. I sort of felt like a creep when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks at Phoenix Coyotes, March 21, 2013

By all accounts, this game should have been a gong show. David Booth joined Ryan Kesler on the Injured Reserve list, Zack Kassian and Steve Pinizzotto didn’t even fly to Phoenix, and Chris Higgins tweaked his back at the morning skate, turning the Canucks’ lineup into the hockey equivalent of Aziz Ansari’s boombox mixtape.

Like that mixtape, the Canucks’ third line seemed to be thrown together at random, with Andrew Ebbett centring Dale Weise and Keith Ballard. Andrew Gordon drew into the lineup for his first game as a Canuck on a fourth line with Maxim Lapierre and Tom Sestito. The haphazardly arranged lineup looked like a disaster on paper, but the Canucks knuckled down and played a simple, hard-working road game.

That isn’t to say it didn’t have its bizarre moments, as it certainly did. At times, this game resembled the Coyotes’ original, seemingly peyote-inspired, jerseys. I reached a higher plane of existence when I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs St. Louis Blues, March 19, 2013

For the fourth straight game, the Canucks struggled with their defensive play in the third period, surrendering two goals. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, for the first time since Nashville, it didn’t affect the final score. Vancouver’s issues closing out games were relatively inconsequential by the time the third rolled around, thanks in large part to strong individual performances in the first and second.

In the first, it was Cory Schneider and only Cory Schneider, who was unbeatable, despite seeing more rubber than Tate Langdon in American Horror Story. In the second, it was Dale mother-flipping Weise. The Flying Dutchman stepped on the clutch and shifted into high gear Tuesday, scoring a highlight-reel goal that turned out to be the game-winner. That’s right: thanks to Weise, the Canucks won this game. And thanks to the innovations of Philo Farnsworth, I watched this game.

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I Watched This Game: Canucks vs Minnesota Wild, March 18, 2013

I’m not panicking yet. I’m far too level-headed to go off the deep end for a loss in which the Canucks soundly outplayed their opponent for the majority of the game, not even when that loss is their 8th in their last 11 games and puts the Canucks at the edge of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, not when there are still 20 games left to be played in the season. No, I’m not panicking.

But I will admit to being concerned. I’m concerned because I know it’s possible, however unlikely, to flip a coin and have it land on heads 100 times in a row. I know that for all of the underlying possession statistics that indicate the Canucks are better than their record indicates, it’s possible that things never turn around this season.

It’s possible that the next 20 games will be exactly like this one: the Canucks outplaying, out-shooting, and out-chancing their opponent, but not out-scoring them, with the Canucks failing to capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes, and their opponents making the Canucks pay for every mistake they make. In which case, I won’t need to watch those games, because I watched this game.

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