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Becoming Road Warriors

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
In addition to their equipment and a change of clothes, perhaps the Canucks should get in the habit of slipping some leftovers in their luggage.

Clearly home cooking has served them well for the past two months and now, as they prepare to play four of the next five games and eight of their next 13 away from home, the hockey club needs to find a way to match its home success out on the road.

The challenge starts Thursday night in San Jose where the Canucks won both of their visits last season, but fell 5-2 in their lone trip so far to the Shark Tank on December 13th. That game marked the last time the Canucks scored more than one goal in a road game having been held to a single scoring play in Edmonton (2-1 shootout loss on December 15th), Phoenix (a 2-1 shootout win on December 22nd), Colorado (a 3-1 loss in the final game prior to Christmas on December 23rd) and Calgary (a 2-1 setback on New Year’s Eve).

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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Early in the year, one of the main reasons the Canucks were able to stay with the pack in the competitive Western conference was their play away from General Motors Place where they won six of their first eight games.

But since mid-November, the road record has become more of an issue with the Canucks who’ve won just five of their past 13 games. And recently, with injuries and a crazy December schedule which saw them play eight games in eight cities in 14 nights, the Canucks have seen their offence run dry away from home.

“Our road record might have slipped a little bit, but everybody knows how challenging the last part of our schedule was, it’s just a matter of us doing what we usually do well on the road, that’s high-percentage, our special teams have been good on the road and we’ll need that on this trip,” says head coach Alain Vigneault, choosing to view the next five games as a road trip even though there’s a stop at home on Friday against Phoenix before heading out on the road for three more.

“Even though we’ve played well in tough circumstances, we haven’t had the same success that we had at the beginning of the season, I’m looking at this game (San Jose) as a solid game for us.”

As good as Roberto Luongo is, the Canucks know it’s almost impossible to win hockey games when scoring only one goal which has happened in the last four road games and six of the team’s last 11. To complicate matters, only two players in the line-up right now have scored goals in the past four road games (Daniel Sedin in Phoenix and Calgary and Taylor Pyatt in Colorado. Injured defenseman Mattias Ohlund had the lone Canuck goal in last month’s shootout loss to the Oilers).

One of the reasons for the offensive struggles may be the team’s focus on line-matching particularly early in hockey games. On the road, without the benefit of last change, the Canucks have to pay particular attention to who’s on the ice for the other team. While necessary, it seems some nights they spend much of their energy on the proper match-ups and line combinations instead of getting pucks to the net.

“I remember in Colorado, it was really hard to match against them,” says Alex Burrows who has scored all four of his goals this season on the road, but hasn’t been able to find the back of the net since December 6th in Nashville. “You’d step on the ice and then we knew we had to come out and it was really tough.”

But the Canucks’ leading shutdown man Ryan Kesler thinks the line-matching on the road keeps everyone on the bench in the hockey game.

“Coaches and players, I think we both have to be extra sharp about who’s being thrown out and as players we have to recognize who’s out on the ice and then change at smart times rather than just changing to change,” says Kesler, who’s already matched his career-high with 10 goals on the season but the last five have all been scored at GM Place. “That [line matching] is the way we’re winning games right now and I think it helps guys focus on the game and be more sharp about what’s going on out on the ice.”

Like Kesler, Markus Naslund is one of the team’s goal-scoring leaders, but hasn’t been able to find the mark on the road since a hat trick in Minnesota on November 21st.

The Canucks have shown that with Roberto Luongo doing his thing between the pipes, that if they can score even two goals in a game, they stand a pretty good chance of winning. That’s why they need guys like Kesler and Naslund to get back in the groove away from home.

The bottom line is that the Canucks need to keep winning hockey games and they’ve proven that they don’t need a ton of offence to do it. If they can find a way to score a few more goals out on the road, they’re bound to win their share as visitors.

“Whether you’re on the road or at home, it doesn’t matter – we just have to win games. You lose a couple in a row and you’re out of the hunt and it feels like you have to win every game to stay on top of things,” says Byron Ritchie who’s scored twice as a Canuck – both on the road, but not since December 5th in Chicago. “It really is one game at a time – home or on the road – that’s how we’re focussing.”

As much as the Canucks have enjoyed playing and winning at GM Place since early November, they’ve got the hunger to find success away from home. And nothing – not even home cooking – would taste better than a bunch of road wins over the next few weeks.  
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