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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 5 Game 7s in Conference Final history

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–We’re getting closer to the opening of the buyout window, which means that certain teams are getting ready to pay players to stay away from their organization. Sportsnet looks at the top 12 buyout candidates of the summer. A pair of Rangers defensemen are at the top of the list. (Sportsnet)

–The Sens and Pens will do battle in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final tonight, so Sean McIndoe listed the top 5 memorable Game 7s in Conference Final history. One of the classic moments in hockey history occurred between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in 1979. (The Hockey News)

–The Washington Capitals underachieved again this spring, and that’s led to some people believing they’ll trade Alex Ovechkin. CSN Mid-Atlantic breaks down the five reasons the Caps won’t be dealing Ovechkin. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

–Almost 14 years ago, the Calgary Flames landed Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks for a second-round pick. The deal proved to be incredible for the Flames, as they were one win away from a Stanley Cup title. The team’s website looks back at the big deal. (NHL.com/Flames)

–The Edmonton Oilers have some interesting decisions to make in the coming years. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will need to get paid in the near future, which means there might not be room for Jordan Eberle and his $6 million salary. Oilers insider Drew Remenda thinks it’s time to move on from the winger. “People can say what they want about me, but I’ll be honest with you in what I think about hockey, and what I think is happening is on the ice. To me I don’t think Jordan Eberle gave you enough or showed you enough to deserve to get another chance.” (Edmonton Journal)

–Congratulations to Maple Leafs forward Brian Boyle and his wife on the birth of their little girl:

Pretty or not, Senators aim to play their game vs. Penguins in Game 7

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that’s not exactly the case.

“I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times,” Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

“I think, if you believe you’re beaten, you’re done already,” Anderson said. “If you believe that you can win, there’s always a chance.”

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league’s marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren’t supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring’s Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they’ve survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan’s impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year’s East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents’ Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month.

“It’s not something that’s new to them,” Sullivan said. “These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on. You know, I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can and doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking.”

The Senators are 0-5 in Game 7s, the last setback coming in the first round to the New York Rangers in 2012. That was five years ago, a lifetime in the NHL. Ottawa rebuilt itself on the fly this season in coach Guy Boucher’s first year. Boucher favors discipline over daring, and while the stat sheet looked awfully one-sided in Game 6, the scoreboard did not.

The Senators understand they’re the underdog and that the idea of a Cup final between first-timer Nashville and a Canadian club from one of the smallest markets in the league won’t exactly draw eyeballs to the screen. They don’t care. They’ll try to play the way they always play on Thursday night. To be successful, they don’t really have a choice.

“We tried to win another way, and we got our butts kicked,” Boucher said.

While both Boucher and Sullivan are doing their best to try and keep their teams focused on the process and not the outcome, in some ways it’s a fool’s errand. It’s the only game all year that will end with the Prince of Wales Trophy presented – but not handed – to the winners. They know. The players do, too.

“I think it’s fun to kind of get lost in those moments and to just do what you can do,” Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said.

Just don’t confuse adrenaline with nerves.

“These are the games, when you’re a kid growing up, that you’re playing in the backyard, the Game 7s and that,” said 40-year-old Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen, who could play in his final NHL game on Thursday. “So for us as players, this is what it’s all about.”

Game 7 offers the Penguins and their stars the opportunity to cement their legacy while the Senators can complete an improbable run to their sport’s biggest stage.

“We’re against a really good hockey team, the Stanley Cup champion, and we have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals,” Senators forward Derick Brassard said. “We can’t ask for anything better than this, but we just have to have fun with that.”

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Related: Boring style is not a new topic for Senators

Predators are dominating the Stanley Cup Playoffs in rest

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If the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a battle of attrition, then the Nashville Predators are the side that always makes sure everyone has rations and a good place to sleep.

OK, that’s an esoteric way of saying that the Predators have managed to get rest while other teams work deep into playoff series. Consider the gaps that Nashville has seen during this postseason:

April 20: Nashville sweeps the Blackhawks with 4-1 win
April 26: Preds beat the Blues in Game 1 4-3. The Blues eliminated the Wild on April 22.

May 7: Predators eliminated the Blues with a 3-1 verdict in a Game 6.
May 12: They managed a 3-2 overtime win against the Ducks. Anaheim finished off the Oilers on May 10, generating such a quick turnaround that Randy Carlyle couldn’t resist grumbling about it after the series concluded.

May 22: Predators bounce the Ducks with a 6-3 win in Game 6.
May 29: They’ll face either the Penguins or Senators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Eastern Conference Final will end tomorrow (May 25).

People often debate about “rest vs. rust,” but those discussions sometimes gloss over the invisible benefits of merely not playing a game. If the Predators played a Game 7 against the Ducks, they may have suffered another injury. Not sweeping the Blackhawks could have made for a very different series.

Setting the table while others miss opportunities

In no way is this a dismissal of the Predators’ accomplishments. Instead, it’s praise for their mascot-appropriate “killer instinct.”

The Penguins, for instance, needed three tries to eliminate the Washington Capitals and now must face another Game 7 against a pesky Senators team. If Ottawa advances, they will have three more playoff contests under their belt, a highly relevant consideration when you consider how taxing this run has been for Erik Karlsson.

Now, the Predators won’t begin the Stanley Cup Final 100 percent. Ryan Johansen won’t magically get to play just because they get a week of rest rather than a few days.

Still, the Predators’ legs will be as fresh as they can be, which is a rare luxury for games played into June.

They’ve earned these breaks by eliminating teams in unflinching ways and by winning road games in tough situations. If they win it all, that reduced fatigue has to at least be considered one of the advantages that they leveraged to victory.

Young Mitch Marner meme isn’t lost on Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

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A couple of days ago, Mitch Marner was spotted at Pearson Airport in Toronto with a backwards baseball cap after flying back from a very impressive and productive run at the World Hockey Championship.

Hockey Twitter exploded with well-meaning laughter as the dazzlingly talented 20-year-old looked even younger than 20.

Even a few days later, it really is a sight to behold, whether you need a respite from politics or biting your nails about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:

As much as many of us deride this age of social media, it’s been a goldmine for self deprecating comedy from hockey players; as it turns out, Roberto Luongo doesn’t have that market completely cornered, either.

Not long ago, Auston Matthews jumped in on the Marner meme, and it was glorious:

To his credit, Marner himself joined in:

Is anyone else eager to see what these young stars come up with both on and off the ice during the next, oh, couple decades?