There was a huge sigh of relief on Wednesday among Vancouver Canucks fans as the team ended their three game losing streak and prevented themselves from becoming the first President’s trophy winning team to be swept in the first round.
Game four was a huge improvement for the Canucks despite an ugly first period. They killed penalties and got some powerplay goals while being backed up by a slightly more consistent and dependable defense as well as goalie Cory Schneider.
Before game three, a 1-0 loss for the Canucks, head coach Alain Vigneault stressed the fact that he needs players to contribute and perform well in games.
“Right now, we need a couple of difference-makers,” he told The Province. “I like our effort the last two games, but we need guys to step up.”
Game four featured difference-maker Daniel Sedin who, in his comeback from a concussion, made incredible passes and helped twin brother Henrik light up the scoreboard, as well as bringing the Canucks’ powerplay back to life.
“He’s an elite athlete, a world-class player and when the game is on the line those guys always seem to be able to raise their game to another level,” assistant coach Rick Bowness told canucks.com of the Sedins, who put their magical, telepathic-like play to work upon Daniel’s return. “When they are in your lineup and playing like they played, if you’re down a goal, down two goals, you know you are still in the game because you know they are capable of stepping up and making big plays and scoring huge goals that get us momentum. That impact is there every night they play, just because of their special abilities.”
With the Sedins up front, the Canucks had a few difference-makers in the defensive end as well. Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa, neither of whom have had a good series, both scored in game four. Dan Hamhuis however, was one of the best defenders for the Canucks. He had two assists – his first points of the series – a team-high six shots, and a team-high ice time of 25:24. He was also tied with Bieksa for team-high blocked shots with three.
Then of course there was Cory Schneider, who will more than likely play the rest of series – and if the Canucks go further, he could remain the number one goaltender.
Interestingly, the numbers of hits by the Canucks in game four decreased significantly compared to the other games. Edler led the team with four hits, and LA outhit the Canucks 50-26. Even though the number of hits has dropped, the Canucks found a way to win. Maybe physicality is not that important when trying to beat the Kings. But whatever the Canucks did, whether it was less hitting or not, it worked, and they need to keep doing it in game five.
Game five will basically be a repeat of game four, a do-or-die game. As Vigneault said before game three, the Canucks need difference-makers. Yes, they have the Sedins, Hamhuis and Schneider, but there are many other players who have not yet reached the expectations set by themselves, the team and the fans.
At practice Friday, Vigneault had Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Max Lapierre, three players who have not yet risen to expectations, practicing on a line together. Each of them has had their positive moments this series, but they are still lacking in something and not producing as much as expected.
Burrows, since scoring the opening goal of the series for the Canucks, has not appeared on the score sheet. He has managed to have an even plus/minus rating, except for a minus-1 rating in game four. This is coming from a player with a plus-24, 52 point regular season.
However, Burrows has done this before. Last season in round one, he registered one assist in game two and then went scoreless before exploding in game six, posting one goal and two assists and then scoring both goals in game seven.
Possible line-mate Kesler has had a strange series. He does have three assists, but like the regular season, has had various ups and downs and has not been consistent. However, he has picked up the pace compared to the regular season.
Burrows and Kesler have always been known for their chemistry, having played on a line together before. Kesler assisted on Burrows’ lone goal of the series and putting these two together along with Lapierre will hopefully bring some much needed energy and goals.
Lapierre, a hard worker who is often more obvious in the post-season, had 19 points in 82 games during the regular season. Ever since the 2008-09 season in which he played with the Montreal Canadiens, he has been unable to surpass his NHL career high 28 points, but has had success nonetheless. He even had a stint on the first line for a while at the end of the regular season, which worked very well.
“I think that line (of Burrows, Kesler and Lapierre) should bring a lot of energy and you’ve got guys there that have got a decent skill set and a lot of speed,” Vigneault told canucks.com. “Hopefully if we do decide to go that route, those are three guys that really want to win bad and they’re willing to do whatever it takes and if we do decide to take that route, we’re expecting real good things from them.”
You can expect good things from David Booth as well, who remained on the first line with the Sedins at practice Friday. Coming to Vancouver from hot, sunny Florida, it seems that he has finally settled into playing in the hockey-crazy country of Canada. Though sometimes quiet, his role with the Sedins in game four impressed Vigneault.
His fellow American Chris Higgins however, has not had much to be positive about. Known for being very reliable and consistent in the regular season, Higgins did not register a shot in either game three or game four. He has been unnoticeable on the ice and needs to improve as he continues to play on the checking line with Jannik Hansen and Samuel Pahlsson.
Like Higgins, Mason Raymond has not had a good series, but instead of not being noticed, his mistakes have drawn attention and criticism.
“I know the young man is trying hard, but obviously the way he’s playing right now he doesn’t deserve to be playing on one of the top three lines,” Vigneault told canucks.com after game four in which Raymond was one of the reasons why the Kings scored their lone goal. “We expect more from him, I’m sure he expects more from himself and for now he’s going to play on a different line and when he goes on the ice, we expect him to give 100 per cent and be ready.”
Burrows, Kesler, Lapierre, Booth, Higgins and Raymond – each of these players have the ability to be a difference-maker, something the Canucks need if they want to avoid taking out their golf clubs.
Who knows what it is that the Sedins, Schneider and Hamhuis, the difference-makers in game four, ate on Wednesday before they played, but they should eat it again on Sunday before their second elimination game. In fact, it would probably be a good idea for them to share their meals with the rest of the team too.