2011-2012 season preview: Vancouver Canucks

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2010-2011 record: 54-19-9, 117 points; 1st in Northwest, 1st in West

Playoffs: Defeated Chicago 4-3 in Western quarterfinals, defeated Nashville 4-2 in Western semifinals, defeated San Jose 4-1 in Western finals, lost to Boston 4-3 in Stanley Cup finals

The dream nearly came true last season. The Canucks exorcised their demons dealing with the Blackhawks and went roaring into the Stanley Cup finals winning the first two games. The rest is history as they couldn’t win on the road and lost their last home game of the year. They did it all except win it all. They’ll have bumps in the road to start if they’re going to get back.

Offense

source: Getty ImagesJust about everyone is back from last season. Adding Marco Sturm to see if he can find his offensive touch again is the typical veteran move for the Canucks. Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin again roll with Alex Burrows on the top line while Mikael Samuelsson is back from injury. A pair of injuries they’ll have to battle through to start the year are those to Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond. Kesler is believed to be back in late October or early November while Raymond is looking towards a late November comeback.

Perhaps the Canucks can finally get something out of Cody Hodgson. If they can’t, don’t be surprised to see Vancouver explore moving him. They’ll need Chris Higgins to play bigger in the meantime and get Manny Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre to lock it down defensively.

Defense

The Canucks’ blue line was much maligned last season with injuries disrupting the unit. This time around they’ve only lost Aaron Rome in training camp with a broken finger. Aside from Christian Ehrhoff, everyone else that helped make their defensive corps, when healthy, one of the best in the NHL is back. Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, and Sami Salo make up a talented top four. Keith Ballard will fight his way out of the doghouse while any of Andrew Alberts, Christopher Tanev and Alexander Sulzer will try to get in the top six. Provided they avoid the injury bug, the Canucks’ defense is awfully good.

Goalie

Watching Roberto Luongo this season should prove to be fascinating. How will he bounce back from what was a great season and most of the playoffs? His terrible play against Chicago in the first round and Boston in the finals leaves us scratching our heads. He’s got premiere talent and when he’s on his game he’s one of the best in the league, yet issues persist. Cory Schneider will back him up once again and continue to push Luongo and draw perpetual interest from teams in need of a solid goalie. There’s no controversy here, it’s just that it feels like it way too often.

Coaching

Alain Vigneault enters his sixth season as Canucks coach and in four of his previous five seasons he’s taken the Canucks to the Northwest title. You’d think his job would be more than safe here but how the team went out in the finals and how he handles some of the lineup moves can drive the rabid Canucks fans goofy. That said, he’s got things figured out in Vancouver, but now he’s in the position where missing the finals is a failure and their mission is to win it all. Lofty expectations abound in Vancouver.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

With Kesler out of commission to start the year, Hodgson has never had a better opportunity to force his way into the lineup and let it be known he can live up to the endless hype he’s had in Vancouver. Only problem there is that Hodgson had a rough preseason and confidence in him is low. He’s the one young guy with the potential to break out or he’ll just wind up being a bust in everyone’s eyes.

Best-case scenario

Things are simple here. The Canucks can repeat the success they had last season in throttling the rest of their division while the Sedins pile up points. They deal with Kesler’s absence with ease by bearing down on all lines to keep the production going. The defense goes without major injury issues and Luongo figures out how to better shrug off bad games to become a mental powerhouse on through the playoffs. Avoiding Chicago and Boston on the way to the Stanley Cup finals would help out a lot.

Reality

The Canucks are as dangerous and loaded as they were last season. The Sedins continue to be dominant, Kesler will be a two-way force upon his return and the defense is as tough and skilled as any in the league. It’s up to Luongo to keep being his great regular season-self and for the team to go into the playoffs with a chip on their shoulder for how they played against Boston. Their ability to flop, dive and complain needs to go away once the postseason arrives, however. They’ve learned lessons from how to do things from year to year and there’s no reason they can’t get back to the finals this season and win it all.

The Buzzer: Night of the goalies

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Players of the Night:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning needed Vasilevskiy to play like the NHL All-Star that he is and that’s exactly what he gave them, stopping 40 shots to help the Lightning to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. The win was important for Tampa, who regained the top spot in the NHL standings and ended a three-game slide in the process. Vasilevskiy’s league-leading seventh shutout of the season ties a franchise record.

Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings: Mrazek fielded 37 shots from the New Jersey Devils on Monday night and handled each and every one of them for his second shutout in as many starts.

Nick Cousins, Arizona Coyotes: Cousins got the ball rolling for the Desert Dogs in the first period, giving them a 1-0 lead. After the Islanders tied the game in the third, Cousins put the final stamp on the game with a goal 2:21 into overtime to give Arizona their second straight win.

Comeback of the Night:

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker got drilled in the head with a slap shot in the first period and had to be helped off the ice. Miraculously, Zucker returned a short time later and went on to score the game-winning goal at the 4:59 mark of the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie in the Wild’s 3-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.

Highlights of the Night:

Granlund and Dumba:

Mrazek made plenty of saves on Monday and perhaps none better than this one (Brian Boyle‘s reaction is priceless):

Ottawa Senators fans will like this, even if the end result wasn’t great:

Auston Matthews had the celebration of the night:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Avalanche 4, Maple Leafs 2

Red Wings 3, Devils 0

Wild 3, Senators 1

Lightning 2, Blackhawks 0

Sabres 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Coyotes 3, Islanders 2 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning end three-game skid with 2-0 win over Blackhawks

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Jon Cooper called declared that his team was “out of sync” prior to Monday night’s game in Chicago.

It’s three words that haven’t been used at all this season to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning who, up until Sunday, was known as the best team in the NHL.

The Lightning came into Monday night nursing a three-game losing streak, another foreign concept for a team saw four of its players elected to the NHL’s All-Star Game this coming weekend.

But just as quickly as they dropped out of the top spot in the NHL — the Vegas Golden Knights assumed that throne for 24 hours after a win on Sunday night — the Lightning snatched it back in a 2-0 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Windy City on Monday.

For a team that perhaps forgot how to play with one another, they looked comfortable in each other’s company against the Blackhawks.

The game was tight for the most part, and it took the Blackhawks being caught napping shorthanded to break a 0-0 deadlock late in the second period as Chris Kunitz took advantage of a defensive mishap. 

Jake Dotchin’s wrister sailed wide, but Kunitz was allowed to waltz behind the net, pick up the loose puck and put it behind Jeff Glass, nearly untouched through the whole process.

The NHL’s top goalie once again lived up to the distinction as Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside all 40 shots that came his way.

The Blackhawks put up 10 or more shots in each of the game’s three periods, including 17 in the second frame. But the All-Star netminder played and exceptional game, including stopping 10 out of 10 on the power play to keep Chicago 0-for-6 on the power play.

Yanni Gourde sealed the game late in the third with a blast to make it 2-0.

It’s a win Tampa needed, especially after finding out they’ll miss forward Ondrej Palat indefinitely.

The struggles continued for the Blackhawks, meanwhile.

Chicago has now been shutout twice in their past three games and is on a three-game skid with a 4-5-1 record in their past 10.

The Lightning could afford their losing streak. They’ve earned an opportunity to slide a little bit.

For the Blackhawks, another loss means another chance missed trying to survive in a deeply competitive Central Division.

The Blackhawks are hanging by a thread and time is running out quickly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Colorado Avalanche’s win streak hits double digits

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The streak is now in double digits.

The Colorado Avalanche won their 10th straight game on Monday night, taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

Yes, that’s 10 wins by the team that ended last season with an NHL-worst 48 points.

Hockey is wonderful, isn’t it?

The Avalanche have been pretty darn good during that streak, outscoring opponents 41-16 during that span. Scoring four goals per game on average will win you more than it won’t.

And the Avs have had success on the back end. Jonathan Bernier has been completely lights out during the streak. He is on a streak of his own with nine straight wins, becoming the third netminder in franchise history to win nine in a row after Stephane Fiset (9) and Patrick Roy (11).

Colorado’s streak is also an NHL-best this season and it’s the second longest streak in Avs history (they won 12 straight during the 1998-99 season).

The Avs are sitting on 57 points, good for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.