Canucks finding their form in February
Saturday, 19 December 2009
Originally published in Eishockey News in 2009
By Lucas Aykroyd
In January, the Vancouver Canucks looked like they were about to freeze to death. In February, the club has begun to smell as sweet as springtime flowers.
After an overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on January 31, the Canucks had truly hit rock bottom, registering their ninth consecutive defeat on home ice. But they finally gave the GM Place faithful something to cheer about on February 3 with a 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, kicking off a season-high four-game win streak.
San Jose, Detroit, Calgary, and Chicago have separated themselves from the pack in the Western Conference playoff race, and it will be tough for Vancouver to overtake Calgary for the Northwest Division crown. Nonetheless, the Canucks are hanging tough with their bid for a playoff berth. What’s behind the big turnaround?
One key factor is that head coach Alain Vigneault, despite being well-known for his constant line juggling, may finally have found some forward combinations that make him happy.
On the top line, agitator Alexandre Burrows has been a surprisingly good fit with star scorers Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The Swedish brothers became the highest-scoring twins in NHL history last month, overtaking Rich and Ron Sutter, who combined for 850 career points. Burrows, a 27-year-old former ECHL reclamation project, knows what he has to do to be an effective linemate.
“The Sedins are very easy to play with,” said Burrows. “For me, it’s just a matter of getting them the puck and going to the net, bringing some guy with me to open up more space for them. They’re awesome players and they’re going to make plays all the time.”
Vigneault has also found a way to get big-time free agent acquisition Mats Sundin going. The ex-Toronto captain had his struggles with Vancouver after debuting on January 7, barely denting the scoresheet and frequently taking bad penalties that led to opposition winning goals. However, when Vigneault paired Sundin with the smarts of Pavol Demitra and the speed and abrasiveness of Ryan Kesler, the result was a multinational success. During a five-game stretch up to and including a 4-2 win over Montreal on February 15, the trio combined for 26 points.
The Vancouver power play has begun to click as well, and having a productive, healthy blueline has been another tremendous asset.
While Vigneault counts on veterans like Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell to shut down the opposition’s top forwards every night, the resurgence of younger defencemen like Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler has been just as important. Bieksa leads all Canucks defencemen in scoring, and Edler isn’t far behind. The second-year Swede recorded a career-best four points versus Chicago on February 7. Sami Salo, known for his 100-mph slapshot, has also gotten better and better since making his return in late January after missing 15 games with a broken rib.
The final piece of the puzzle will be in place when starting goalie Roberto Luongo returns to his usual all-world form. It’s not as if he’s played horribly during Vancouver’s February comeback, but the 2007 Vezina and Hart Trophy nominee knows he can still do a better job of shutting the door.
“I’m not where I want to be,” Luongo admitted. “I’m doing the right things on the ice and in practice, and it’s just a matter of giving it time.”
If Luongo starts recording shutouts in the near future, this team could actually see its playoff fortunes blossom like the cherry trees that line Vancouver streets.