Vancouver Canucks need to rise above mediocre play
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Vancouver Canucks as they lurch their way through this truncated National Hockey League season is that even in victory they leave their fans with far more questions than answers.
The 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on March 19 is a perfect example. Sure, the Canucks left Rogers Arena with two important points in the standings, but trying to draw any conclusions about the team’s overall performance on such a night is next to impossible.
Outshot 15-3 in a first period in which they barely touched the puck, the Canucks completely turned the tables on their visitors and skated circles around St. Louis for the first 12 minutes of the second. And during that stretch they managed to score three times and seemingly grabbed the game by the throat.
But these are the 2013 Vancouver Canucks, and nothing—absolutely nothing—comes easily to this bunch. And so they abandoned everything they’d done in the middle period, stuffed their offence into storage for the third, and basically prayed that time would elapse before the Blues could match them on the scoreboard.
And St. Louis came close. Just as they’d done in the first period, the visitors cranked up the pace of the game and the Canucks sat back and defended. And defended. And defended some more.
It’s a dangerous way to play at the best of times—even more so in the second of back-to-back games, the third game in four nights, and the fourth in six. Add to this the fact that the Canucks are working with a skeleton crew of capable National Hockey League centremen, and it was a patchwork lineup doing all it could to keep the Blues at bay.
To the surprise of no one, St. Louis eventually broke through, five minutes into the final period. Then the Blues scored a second goal with six minutes to play, and even the most loyal Canucks supporter had to entertain the notion that the team’s once comfortable lead was going to evaporate.
In the end it didn’t, and the Canucks held on for the victory despite being outshot 34-19. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t complete, but it was a better outcome than in recent games, with the Canucks prevailing just six times in 17 outings, following an 8-2-2 start to the season.
The team wants to believe it’s still in the upper echelon in the Western Conference, even though the inconsistency from game to game and from period to period, as in the St. Louis outing, makes that an awfully tough sell.
And yet when you see the Canucks in full flight, as they were in the second period against the Blues, you understand why they feel they can still be a force. For half a period, all the hallmarks of a successful team were on display: speed, skill, creativity, tenacity, structure, and terrific teamwork.
While this is fun to watch when it’s happening, the questions remain: where were any of those factors in the first period, and why did the Canucks abandon them in the third?
This one game was in many ways a microcosm of the team’s turbulent season so far. There were flashes that left you believing that with top-notch goaltending and a balanced offensive attack, there might still be some magic in a group that got within a win of the Stanley Cup two years ago.
But there were also agonizingly long stretches when the Canucks barely looked worthy of sharing the same ice with St. Louis.
Come playoff time (and for the moment let’s assume that the team, currently in seventh place, will hang on to one of the eight postseason berths in the West), the Canucks will not be able to win a best-of-seven series by playing only a single period of hockey per game. They can get away with it for one night in mid March, but six weeks from now they will have no choice but to get their game to a consistently high level. An even tougher challenge will be to keep it there.
And if they truly believe they can climb to the top of the mountain and finally grasp the Stanley Cup, they know they’re going to have to beat good teams repeatedly—something the Canucks just haven’t been able to do with any regularity through the first two months of the season.
They’ve played the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks tough twice, posted wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles, and squeezed out the recent victory over St. Louis. They’ve beaten all of those teams, but have lost to them, too. And that just muddies the water when you’re trying to assess whether the Vancouver Canucks are any kind of legitimate playoff threat.
They’re not as bad as they were when they dropped four in a row and six of seven a few weeks back, but they’re not as good right now as they were when they won six straight earlier in the season.
In almost every area, the Vancouver Canucks are okay. Not great. Not bad. Just okay. The problem is that once the playoffs begin, okay won’t cut it. It might get them a victory or two, but it’s hard to imagine this group, which struggles to come up with 16 solid minutes on some nights, stringing together anything close to the 16 postseason wins needed to become NHL champion.
The Canucks dodged a bullet against the Blues. Better, more complete efforts will be required to stay out of harm’s way in the weeks—and possibly months—ahead.