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.

Couturier’s hat trick, Hart’s 39 saves help Flyers hold on against Bruins

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It’s not a sustainable winning formula — getting wildly outshot — but the Philadelphia Flyers will take wins any way they can get them these days.

It certainly helps when their players are scoring hat tricks, however. And just scoring in general.

James van Riemsdyk notched his hat trick in a 7-4 win against the Minnesota Wild on Monday, and it was Sean Couturier’s turn with his first career hatty in a 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN.

And it helps to have Carter Hart, who has now won three of his past four starts (and has seen 35 or more shots in four of his past five).

Hart stopped 39 of the 42 pucks sent his way as the Flyers were outshot 42-19.

Hart’s now responsible for two wins on the trot, something the Flyers haven’t experience since Dec. 20. Winning hasn’t come easy in the City of Brotherly love. It’s been a tough season, so silver linings are are the small victories in what appears to be a lost season.

[RELATED: NASCAR champ Martin Truex Jr. goes between the benches]

The Bruins were largely unlucky in the game after controlling two-thirds of the possession, creating 62 shot attempts five-on-five.

Boston had won six of their past eight coming into the game but lost 3-2 in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.

With David Backes made a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s game, Boston jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period, including the first NHL goal by Backes’ replacement, Peter Cehlarik.

The Flyers would go on to score four unanswered, with Oscar Lindblom getting the ball rolling and Couturier’s natural hat trick putting the Flyers into a 4-2 lead in the third.

Cehlarik added to his impressive debut by scoring with 56 seconds left in the game but wasn’t enough to get the Bruins to overtime.


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

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit on Coyotes on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Seven games in 2019 have equated to seven straight wins for the San Jose Sharks, who own the longest active winning streak in the NHL.

The Sharks are doing so well that they’ve climbed into second place in the Pacific Divison and can take top spot if the first-place Calgary Flames lose to the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sharks come into the game having played on Tuesday, with Tomas Hertl scoring a hat trick to down the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2.

It might be time, then, for the Coyotes to capitalize.

Arizona has won three of its past four and sends Darcy Kuemper into the crease. Kuemper has won four straight starts

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes
Where: Gila River Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Coyotes stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Evander Kane — Tomas Hertl — Joonas Donskoi
Melker KarlssonBarclay GoodrowKevin Labanc

Radim SimekBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson
Tim HeedJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Aaron Dell

COYOTES

Clayton KellerJordan WealChristian Fischer
Richard PanikDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Alex GalchenyukNick CousinsConor Garland
Lawson CrouseMario KempeJosh Archibald

Oliver Ekman-LarssonNiklas Hjalmarsson
Jakob ChychrunIlya Lyubushkin
Jordan OesterleAlex Goligoski

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

NASCAR champ Martin Truex Jr. goes between the benches on Wednesday Night Hockey

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One thing hockey and NASCAR have in common is speed.

Martin Truex Jr. knows a thing or two about going fast, and he saw similarities in the pace of both sports when he joined NBCSN’s broadcast of the Philadelphia Flyers and visiting Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey.

“These guys go with everything they have every single minute of the game,” Truex said. “We have to do the same. When they’re on the ice, they’re going wide-open all day, and that’s kind of how we do it.”

The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champ is gearing up for the 2019 Daytona 500 on Feb. 17 on a new team after making the switch to Joe Gibbs Racing during the offseason following five years with Furniture Row Racing.

But on Wednesday, he was between the glass in Philly with NBCSN’s Brian Boucher.

Truex watched the two teams warming up prior to puck drop. His goal?

“Just to see how close I can get to the puck without it actually hitting me would be a good start,” Truex said, smiling. “Just to see the size and the speed of these guys is going to be insane up close.”

As to who he was rooting for, the Philadelphia-area native was clear.

“Flyers all the way,” he said.

Truex got a good taste of what today’s NHL is all about: goal-scoring.

The Bruins and Flyers combined for three goals in the first period.

“I feel like this is a NASCAR race,” Truex said 15 minutes into the period. “It’s so intense. You got to be here to see it in person. TV is awesome, but when you get down here by this ice, it’s amazing what these guys are doing. NASCAR fans would say the same thing about racing all of the time.”

Truex was especially impressed by the goaltenders, who saw a combined 19 shots in the period.

MORE: 2019 NASCAR schedule on NBC and NBCSN 


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

Surging Sergachev gives loaded Lightning yet another weapon

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are so far ahead of the rest of the NHL, it’s almost insulting, and the scary part is that we might not have seen this team at its best.

Or, at least, there’s mounting evidence that the Bolts are uncommonly well-suited if injuries or other curveballs head their way.

Such a thought comes to mind – and maybe puts a damper on trade deadline daydreaming for other teams – when you see Mikhail Sergachev starting to heat up.

Overall, it’s been a slightly disappointing season for the 20-year-old, at least as far as counting stats go. Last season, Sergachev inspired a ton of “Sergachev has x points compared to Jonathan Drouin” comments on his way to 40 points in 79 games despite averaging just 15:22 TOI. This season, those jokes have dried up (Drouin’s at 35 already), as the Russian defenseman’s been limited to 18 points.

But things are really coming around lately.

With a goal in Tuesday’s 2-0 win against the Stars, Sergachev now has five points (two goals, three assists) in his last five games. He also has six in his past seven.

That’s obviously a small sample size, but it’s remarkable just how much swagger you can see in Sergachev’s game. Consider this goal from Jan. 12, when Sergachev made a saucy fake-slapper before setting up an Ondrej Palat tally:

Sergachev is being bold, and good things are happening when he’s being bold:

Maybe just as importantly, Sergachev is clearly gaining the trust of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. Consider what he said on Jan. 12, via Joe Smith of The Athletic (sub required):

“It’s night and day from last year to this year,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s funny, he pointed a lot last year and was scoring goals. But there was so much about the game he had to learn, whether it was at the defensive end, where you’re supposed to be, and he’s done a great job this year. Last year, you had to dress seven ‘D’ to manage his minutes, there’s no need to do that anymore.”

Here’s a wild assumption: maybe Cooper needed that time as much as Sergachev did?

Cooper gives off the vibe of one of the NHL’s more progressive head coaches, yet he also struggled with the risk/reward part of Drouin’s game, and a lot of coaches tend to fixate on mistakes made by young players while letting similar mistakes go when it comes to veterans.

After all, Sergachev’s possession numbers were quite impressive last season, too — to the point that it was almost a little frustrating to see the Lightning struggle against, say, the Capitals and not loosen Sergachev’s leash a bit.

Either way, there’s no denying that Sergachev is more trusted. After starting a lopsided 70.2-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone in 2017-18, he’s down to a still-offense-leaning but more reasonable 54.3 percent this season, and he’s still a strong possession player, even relative to his talented teammates.

The Lightning should really see how far they can push things with Sergachev, actually.

With such a robust lead in the East, this should be a great opportunity for Cooper to experiment with different lineup combinations.

From a handedness perspective, it would likely irk Cooper to pair Sergachev with fellow left-handed shot Victor Hedman, but then again, would the end result still be more effective than limited, veteran RHD Dan Girardi? If RHD Anton Stralman has lost one too many steps, could Sergachev instead make for an upgrade alongside Tampa Bay’s other standout LHD, Ryan McDonagh?

Heck, would the Lightning’s already-deadly power play be even scarier if it bucked 4F/1D trends and went with Sergachev and Hedman on the top unit, instead of Sergachev on the second PP?

It’s perfectly plausible that the Lightning have already found all the correct answers in their current alignments, but what better time to experiment than now, when you have that buffer — yet you may never be in a better position to win a Stanley Cup with this core?

(After all, re-signing Brayden Point won’t be cheap, while Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s will be slated for substantial raises after 2019-20.)

Some of these factors present challenges for the Lightning, but if Sergachev’s growth and other factors tip toward Tampa Bay, this already-formidable team could be that much more terrifying.

That thought is almost as scary as trying to stop Sergachev when he’s improvising in the offensive zone.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.