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.

Everything comes up Bruins on Saturday

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Honestly, Zdeno Chara signing another team-friendly contract would have been enough to make Saturday great for the Boston Bruins, alone. But the good times didn’t stop there.

Nope, the Bruins carried those positive vibes to the ice, as they pummeled the Florida Panthers by a score of 7-3. In managing that lopsided win, the Bruins became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A clinched spot and a big win to go with that Chara extension … that’s it, right? Nope, more fun stuff came when you zoomed into the specifics of the game.

For one thing, Chara celebrated his extended stay with the Bruins by scoring the 200th goal of his splendid NHL career, and it was a pretty nice one. (You can watch that milestone tally in the video above this post’s headline.)

Chara also had an assist in that win, so quite an all-around Saturday for “The Big Z.”

He wasn’t the only Bruins player to have a memorable evening, as Noel Acciari scored a goal and also threw punches at a gatling-gun-rhythm in quite the fight with MacKenzie Weegar:

*Infomercial voice* But wait, there’s more …

The Maple Leafs only managed a point against the struggling Rangers on Saturday, so now the Bruins hold a seven-point edge for the Atlantic’s second seed, and home-ice advantage in that looming first-round series.

While Toronto would be a tough opponent – warts and all – it must be tantalizing for the Bruins to picture what they might be capable of. After all, the B’s are starting to get healthier following a season of injury headaches, and they’re heating up considering their four-game winning streak.

They’re also an impressive 28-7-3 at home this season, so home ice could be pretty significant.

Yes, life was good for the Bruins on Saturday, and they aim to carry that over to most nights in April, and beyond.

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.

March Madness is theme of Hurricanes’ latest win celebration

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When you think of March Madness, it won’t take long for the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels to come to your mind, especially if you’re living in the Carolinas. That apparently isn’t lost on the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team’s latest celebration evoked the NCAA’s beloved college basketball tournament, as the Hurricanes distanced themselves from the East’s bubble teams by thoroughly defeating (the very much West-bubble-dwelling) Minnesota Wild 5-1 on Saturday.

It was a great performance, with Teuvo Teravainen playing the role of MVP via one goal and two assists.

If Teravainen was the star, then call Trevor van Riemsdyk “The Human Hockey Highlight Reel,” as he showed some solid ups with his dunk during this fun celebration:

The Hurricanes are only going deeper into the “prop” stage of these win celebrations, and let me tell you: I’m all for it, and not just because it annoys the crustiest of crusty old hockey men.

Carolina now holds the first East wild-card spot with 89 points in 74 games played. The Montreal Canadiens are behind them in the second WC spot (87 points in 75 GP), making things only tenser for the struggling Blue Jackets, who remain out of the top eight with 84 points in 74 games played.

More and more, it looks like the Hurricanes will avoid another trip to hockey’s NIT (which would be the golf course, or maybe the hockey championship tournament overseas?), as their grip tightens on a playoff spot.

If things go really well, maybe the Hurricanes could celebrate a big win by cutting down the nets?

via Getty Images

Hey, they might as well file away ideas if they keep winning at this pace.

Jets dominate Predators, clinch playoff spot

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This is basically how the Winnipeg Jets probably dreamed of clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Kyle Connor collecting a hat trick, the Jets firmly took control of first place in the Central Division by drubbing the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Saturday. This outcome doesn’t just clinch that playoff berth, it also gives Winnipeg a four-point edge on Nashville.

The Jets also hold a game in hand, as they have seven games remaining, while the Predators only play six more.

The most spectacular of Connor’s three goals came when he shimmied around P.K. Subban (someone who regularly gets booed in Winnipeg), and then Pekka Rinne had no chance to stop the young winger:

The Predators find themselves vulnerable to beginning the first round on the road, as the Blues aren’t far behind them for the second seed in the Central.

Connor actually also had an assist in this game (3G, 1A), as he’s showing some fascinating chemistry with Kevin Hayes, who joined him in having a four-point game (1G, 3A). Considering how dangerous the Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler duo tends to be, and the luxury wingers Winnipeg also has in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, a deadly combination of Hayes and Connor could be an absolute nightmare for opponents.

The Jets have been notably up-and-down at times this season, yet you could argue that it might be a matter of mild complacency. For the first time ever, this franchise is enjoying a glut where they can sort of mosey into the playoffs, so maybe they had been “struggling with prosperity” to some extent?

Well, as dangerous as it might be to supposedly “flip on the light switch,” the Jets are playing well enough that you might really start to hear some puns involving “taking off” and “getting fueled up” soon. That’s fair enough, if they fly as high most nights as they did on Saturday.

(Oh no, I’m doing it already, too.)

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.

GM bashes Blue Jackets for not ‘playing like a team’

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Plenty of people are under pressure as the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a panic-inducing spot: out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of this moment.

Yet, you have to believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s seat is the hottest. After all, he’s the one who decided to not only keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but also load up big-time during the trade deadline.

The thought was that keeping Bread and Bob would be “like getting trade deadline rentals” in the first place, so why not swing for the fences instead of giving up?

Well, instead of a deep run looking fully in view, the Blue Jackets instead are gazing at the standings, wondering if they might miss the postseason altogether. Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets have gone an unsettling 5-7-1, and Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline that he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We have to start playing like a team,” Kekalainen said (sub required). “Right now, we’re looking like a group of individuals who are pulling in different directions. We don’t look like a team.”

Is it John Tortorella’s fault that the Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team?

That’s an argument for another day, but Kekalainen emphatically shot down any thought of Torts getting fired during the waning days of the 2018-19 season, telling Portzline that “if anybody can figure out how to turn this thing around, it is going to be [Tortorella].”

So, what might be the problem, then?

Well, unfortunately, those big holdovers aren’t delivering in a way that will please those worrying about Bobrovsky and Panarin leaving for nothing.

Panarin hasn’t been terrible, mind you, with a respectable eight points (though only one goal) in his last 13 games. And, as up-and-down as Bobrovsky’s been both this season and since the deadline, it’s not all Bob’s fault, as he’s dealing with some injury issues.

But those new additions really haven’t been able to take off. Matt Duchene seems to bring a hex with him everywhere he goes, and he’s only managed four points with Columbus. Most disturbingly, Pierre-Luc Dubois only has a single assist since the deadline.

It’s frustrating to linger on bad luck as a major reason for things going sideways, particularly for a team that’s been as frustrated in big games as the Blue Jackets have been. Still, it’s undeniable that bad bounces have been a factor.

Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets’ even-strength shooting percentage is just 5.23-percent, the second-worst number in the NHL (according to Natural Stat Trick). During an NHL season where teams are averaging close to three goals per game (2.82), the Blue Jackets have just 27 goals in 13 games, barely managing two per game (a bit less than 2.08).

As much as teams want to just will their way to goals and wins, sometimes it’s simply difficult to overcome cold streaks.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Kekalainen made was overrating his team/”group of individuals,” then? The underlying stats pointed to a Blue Jackets team that had mostly been middle-of-the-pack when it’s come to owning the puck and controlling high-danger chances, with a few key players like Panarin helping to make that key difference between victory and defeat.

Maybe making so many changes to the roster threw off delicate chemistry just enough to ruin that tightrope act? Could it be that Panarin actually … wanted to move on, to some extent, and feels a tad-bit dejected to have to play out the string?

Or, most likely, the bounces just haven’t been there, and such headaches have magnified issues, turning molehills into mountains?

Either way, it’s clear that things haven’t been coming easily for the Blue Jackets lately, and the pressure is getting to just about everyone — including the GM who put the team together.

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.