It’s hard to believe the same team that blitzed the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings, blanked the high-flying Anaheim Ducks and has twice forced the record-setting Chicago Blackhawks to a shootout and rattled off a six-game win streak giving up just six goals in the process is the same group that is currently spinning its wheels at the midway mark of this condensed National Hockey League schedule. But that’s the type of first-half it has been for the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks roared out of the gate 8-2-2 start to the season. But since then, it’s been a struggle on too many nights for the Canucks to score goals and win hockey games. And if taking the first 24 games into account and assessing the Canucks on the body of work presented, it seems the most fitting letter grade for the team is an I – for inconsistency.
When on their game this season, the Canucks have been air-tight defensively and have spread their scoring making them a tough team to defend. The offensive contributions of Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond and the continued development of Chris Tanev on defense certainly count among the first half highlights. And with 14 points in 24 games, Dan Hamhuis has found a way to chip in with offense at a rate higher than in previous seasons.
And while it took longer than they likely expected, Henrik and Daniel Sedin have been point a game producers with Henrik heating up recently with goals in three straight games and six in his past 11.
So there have been moments in the first half of the season where this group has shown flashes of what it’s capable of. However, there have also been lapses – too many lapses – that have kept the Canucks from keeping their game at a consistently high level. And that’s the main reason the Canucks find themselves bumped from the Northwest Division penthouse by the Minnesota Wild at the midway mark.
Special teams – so good for so long in Vancouver – have been the biggest issue facing the hockey club. In a league with so many games decided by a single goal, the Canucks have to find a way to re-ignite a power play that has gone cold over the past dozen games.
In my mind, the power play problems are the most shocking development in the first half of the Canucks season. The best power play in the league just two years ago -- with much of the same personnel -- has now plunged to 24th in the league. Daniel Sedin led the NHL with 18 power play goals two seasons back and right now finds himself on a 20-game power play goal drought.
Other issues facing the Canucks include a number of forwards who have to find ways to contribute. Alex Burrows has been such a reliable goal-scorer for the hockey team over the past four seasons it’s a surprise to see him with five goals at the midway mark. Zack Kassian also has five goals. The problem there is that they all came in the first seven games and since the end of January Kassian has been firing blanks. And the Canucks are hoping that David Booth can find the range and that once he starts scoring goals will come in bunches.
Obviously injuries to Ryan Kesler – and more recently Kevin Bieksa – have taken a toll on the Canucks. They are a much better team with both of those players healthy and in the line-up. But all teams have to deal with injuries over the course of a season and the successful teams find ways to pick up the slack in the absence of fallen teammates.
In recent years, the Canucks were terrific front-runners pouncing on opponents and putting them away. However, in in their latest outings, the Canucks have found themselves trailing too often and unable to play with the lead. That makes life difficult as opponents are given the chance to dictate the way the games are played and the Canucks spend too much energy playing catch-up. And that’s been an issue on home ice where the Canucks have been so formidable for the past few seasons. That’s something the team has to be mindful of in the second half of the season finding a way to protect home ice and once again make Rogers Arena a difficult place for opponents.
Goaltending can be the great equalizer in hockey and on a number of nights in the early going the Canucks saw that from both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. But goalies alone can’t win hockey games and as the Canucks embark on the second half of this season, they’re going to need both of their netminders to raise their games while the players in front of them do the same thing.
It’s been an eventful season to say the least with plenty of drama already packed into just 24 games. There have been ups, there have been downs and there has been no shortage of storylines. And that’s bound to continue over the second half – which this year also just happens to be the stretch run.
The Canucks have shown an ability to play with the top teams in the Western Conference, but they’ve also seen what happens when they let their game slip. They have 24 games remaining to rediscover the form that had them off to a very fast start.
The sprint to the finish begins now and it’ll be interesting to see how the Canucks run the race.