After two rather exciting wins against teams fighting for their playoff lives in the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks games, the Canucks take on the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning tonight.
Dare we predict three exciting Canucks games in a row? It could happen. Obviously, the Lightning are an offensively inclined team that will be able to generate chances on a Vancouver defensive corps that has struggled for much of the season.
Will the Canucks be able to keep up? Maybe. The team is scoring lately, but it should be noted that the Avalanche aren’t the strongest defensive team in the league and the Blackhawks vaunted blueline of yesteryear is a shadow of its former self.
The Lightning have one of the deepest defensive groups in hockey. Victor Hedman is a perennial Norris Trophy nominee; Mikhail Sergachev is having an incredible rookie year; Anton Stralman is one of the steadier d-men in the NHL. And of course, the forward group, augmented by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos is stacked.
The Canucks need their forwards to step up once again. Here are some things to watch in tonight’s game.
Good or bad branson?
The Canucks have 11 games until the trade deadline, and each one of those will shine the spotlight on Erik Gudbranson. The pending unrestricted free agent is likely to command around $4.5 million per year on a four or five year contract around the league (at least that’s the consensus opinion. It’s hard to imagine a responsible team paying that much for a third-pairing defenceman who routinely gets hammered possession wise). Even though recent reports have the Canucks trying to re-sign the rugged blueliner, bet on him being moved by the deadline.
It’s games like these that Gudbranson has to be at his best. The Canucks (and prospective employers who no doubt will have scouts employed to watch) need to see that he’s able to actually shut down the best players in the league. Or else there’s no reason to give him a long-term, fairly big money contract.
The B-Line vs. Hedman
The Canucks’ top line of Bo Horvat between Sven Baertschi and Brock Boeser will no doubt see a big helping of Hedman, Tampa Bay’s massive, mobile defenceman. Even though Travis Green has last change, he likely won’t be able to keep his first line away from the Bolts’ top pairing. Can Boeser and company get the better of one of the league’s best defencemen?
Complementing Tampa Bay’s exceptional forwards and defencemen is one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevsky. The goaltender looks like a lock to be a Vezina nominee, and the Canucks will need a strong offensive effort if they’re to truly test him.
Julien Brisebois is the 41-year-old assistant general manager of the Lightning. He’s also one of the most coveted front office executives in the league. The Montreal Canadiens have expressed interest (as they should, given he’s French, a must for that market, and their current GM, Marc Bergevin, may not be up to the task), and it’s clear that Brisebois will most likely be going somewhere, probably at the end of this season.
Brisebois has learned under Steve Yzerman, arguably the best GM in the league, and would be a very attractive candidate for the Canucks if the team decides to move on from Jim Benning in the offseason. The latter seems likely, given that ownership and president Trevor Linden have waited this long to re-sign him.
Tampa Bay 4 Vancouver 2
It’s tough not to see this one as a bit of a letdown for the Canucks. The effort will likely be there, but can Vancouver keep up with Tampa? That remains to be seen. The Canucks will need a strong effort from Jacob Markstrom if they’re to keep things close.