Vancouver’s Big Secret

There are going to be anywhere from one to four teams needing the following top-secret information for the playoffs. It’s the way to beat the Vancouver Canucks. And it’s clear that what’s to follow is the key, because I heard it three different times in two locker rooms Sunday night.

Those were the havens of the Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks.

OK, to the good stuff. First, the Canucks’ coach, Alain Vigneault.

“Nobody had any doubt that we could do that. We’ve done it on many occasions before.”

Done what? Win intense, playoff-type games, which was how the game against the Ducks was characterized to him. In fact, that’s an overstatement. The Ducks weren’t that good against Vancouver, as their captain, Ryan Getzlaf said after the game.

“We were a little too satisfied with just chipping the puck,” he said. “Just getting the puck behind them and not doing the job of good plays afterwards. Guys have to get in there and crash and bang so we can take advantage of it on the back end.”

In fact, looking at the stat sheet shows a resounding loss for Anaheim. They were outshot 26-16. They gave away 13 pucks and took away none. Zero. They were only 43% on the faceoffs. However, they did outhit the other side 25-23. But they also blew six power plays while allowing the Canucks to score a power play goal. That was the third in an eventual 3-0 loss. The ones that killed them were the first two.

Both came off Manny Malhotra’s stick. Both were unspectacular, hardworking goals. Neither took more than a minute from the start of the first and second periods to score. In fact, the second one was in the cage within 17 seconds of puck drop. And that with Anaheim having the first two seconds with an extra man.

The stars—the Sedins (Henrik and Daniel), primarily—weren’t even really in the mix, though Daniel scored the team’s final goal. Neither were any of the Ducks. The signature long passes were erased from their repertoire. A couple of times, they charged down the center of the slot, but Vancouver uses a 2-1-2 defense that makes it pretty easy to end up with three guys back clogging up the front of the net.

The Ducks often deal with defense by catching them flatfooted with those passes just mentioned. The Canucks don’t fall for that. But what was the secret?

“They hold one another accountable,” the Canucks coach said. “They prepare themselves the way they’re supposed to, and they go out and compete.”

One of his players, Manny Malhotra, said the same thing.

“We’re getting on teams quick and forcing them really hard,” he stated. “We have to play really hard and negate any possible advantage they might have.”

OK, but that’s not the key. Here it is:

“Our success has been coming because we’re so focused on the now,” Malhotra said. “Focused on improving ourselves every day rather than looking into the future.”

To get back to the opposite dressing room, Getzlaf said essentially the same thing. “They play pretty tight.”

Why? Read back to Vigneault. But instead of letting him give the credit to the players, throw it back to him. He has been preaching a consistent message for at least two years. Prepare. Buy in. It will be worth it. And his guys are doing just that.

Is there a weakness? Roberto Luongo, if he’s pressured, cracks. He tries to do too much. It was seen in Anaheim a couple of years ago, when he was trying to direct the referee rather than playing his position and let a goal in in an overtime game. He punted the puck out into the slot in the Olympics and allowed the game to be tied before Sidney Crosby won it in OT.

Against the Ducks, it wasn’t he, but rather Cory Schneider, who was in net, and he got his first NHL shutout. That, too, should worry playoff opponents, because if Luongo falters, this guy is good enough to go in. He gets barely enough work now to stay sharp, but how many times has a goalie come in in the post-season and all of a sudden found himself having to carry the load and able to do it well? That’s right—almost every year it happens.

So what are the other squads to do? They could try to manhandle the Canucks, and the Ducks did. It didn’t work. They’ve also gotten tougher over the last few seasons. They could concentrate on Malhotra’s line. But those guys tore up the Kings Saturday, so that’s easier said than done.

They could make sure the building isn’t full of blue sweaters, as Staples and Honda Center were the last couple of days. But if you’re counting on your crowd to win for you, you’re in big trouble.

Nope, it’s going to be tough for anyone to get these guys to crack, even an opponent who knows their secret. There are just too many of the Canucks’ players too focused on what they are doing.

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