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John Garrett: Back-to-backs

by John Garrett / Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks enter the All-Star break on a roll.

They have won three of their last four all on the road. Their only loss came at the hands of the league’s best home ice team in Tampa and on a night where they had played 24 hours earlier in Sunrise against the Panthers. Ryan Miller had posted back-to-back shutouts on consecutive nights in Philadelphia and Carolina and therefore established a franchise road record. This brings me to my point about back-to-back games.

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John Garrett is a former Canuck and currently the colour commentator for Sportsnet Pacific.

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The Canucks have played eight sets of back-to-back games, five on the road and three involving a home game and a road game. There are four more sets to be played. Three of those involve two road games and one a home and road. The league is right to have the road teams play more frequently, this gives the home team an advantage and lessens the time teams spend away from their families. It is an advantage, but really how much an advantage. The Canucks are 6-2 in the first game of their consecutive night games. They are 2-4-2 in the second game of back-to-backs. You say that makes sense they must be tired, but there is much more to it. You have to look at each individual game and decide if fatigue was the mitigating factor.

The last road trip is a perfect example. The Canucks played a stinker in Nashville and you knew they would have a much better effort in Philadelphia. Ryan Miller was playing very well and was coming off almost a weeklong rest. The Flyers were struggling and their number one goalie was injured. Ray Emery got the hook after letting in three goals and seven shots and the team cruised to a 4-0 win. The power play scored twice and confidence had been restored. The Canucks took a short flight to Carolina and played a Hurricane team who at the time was 19 points out of the playoffs. You should win and the Canucks did. Ryan Miller was great again and they chased another goalie as Cam Ward left after two periods trailing 3-0.

The last two games were in Sunrise and Tampa. The Panthers are trying to make the playoffs and the Lightning are fighting for first in the east. The two Florida teams had both won at Rogers Arena so you knew the Canucks were motivated. They came out flying against the Panthers and scored twice early. Had Roberto Luongo not stood on his head the score would have been 5-0 after the 1st. Instead the Canucks went into protect mode and rode their defence and goaltending to a 2-1 victory. It was a relatively easy night for Ryan Miller. He faced only 24 shots and had to make maybe three great saves.

The flight to Tampa was 45 minutes. The problem was Tampa was a much tougher opponent and was trying to win its eighth straight home game to set a franchise record. I don’t care how much rest you have the Lightning are a tough team to beat at home. The Canucks kept the Bolts off the score sheet for half the game, but could not find the net themselves. Were they tired? Maybe, but don’t tell me fatigue is the major factor when you have a 4-on-3 power play for a minute and fifteen seconds and you get one shot on goal ; or you have a 5-on-3 for 1:31 and you get one shot on goal. With the man advantage the Canucks won 1-of-8 faceoffs.

I think it is only human nature that the Canucks felt they already had a pretty good road trip with a 3-1-0 record and did not have the drive to make their power play work. I do not think you can chalk the Tampa game up to the fatigue of playing back-to-backs. On their seven game trip in late November and early December they had a game in Toronto on a Saturday and Sunday in Ottawa. It is hard to believe, but back then the Leafs were playing pretty well. They were stockpiling their home games before the world juniors and were making the most of them. They had won five of seven and had points in six of seven. They had scored 22 goals in those seven games and their big guns were on fire. Kessel, Bozak and Lupul had 11 goals and nine assists. The Canucks were coming off a 3-0 shutout recorded by Eddie Lack in Pittsburgh. Miller had a tough start and even though the Canucks outshot the Leafs 46-28 they lost 5-2.

Now on to Ottawa. You knew the Canucks would be better but the Senators were a desperate team. They had lost five in a row and there were all sorts of talk that their coach was going to be fired. The Canucks jumped out to a 3-0 lead and looked like they were on their way, but then they ran into some penalty problems. The Senators scored on a two-man advantage and had seven power plays. The home team, who were getting booed, played with a lot of pride and came back and won in overtime. The Canucks did not look tired. By the way Paul Maclean was fired the next day.

The Canucks played six games between November 11-25. Five of them were played at home with a quick trip to Edmonton in the middle. The Oiler game was on the 19th with a home game against Anaheim on the 20th. The team played one of their worst games of the year on the 14th against the Arizona Coyotes. They lost 5-0 and were embarrassed. The bounce back game was in effect in Edmonton. Radim Vrbata scored two power play goals and that line had seven points in a 5-4 win. The Anaheim Ducks had played two nights earlier and were waiting for the Canucks. The Ducks had lost five of six and were a hungry team. The Canucks outshot the visitors and looked good, but lost in a shoot out. There was no fatigue in this one.

Trips to California last year were completely a nightmare. This year the first trip south was part of a four gamer that started in Denver on November 4th with stops in San Jose and then back-to-backs in LA and Anaheim. The Canucks won in Colorado and then Miller stole one in San Jose. The shots were 36-19 in favor of the Sharks, but the score was 3-2 Vancouver. He was not so lucky in LA and got the hook after four goals in a 5-1 loss. The Canucks were again outshot 36-19. They did not use up much energy in that one. Kevin Bieksa started the next game in Anaheim off by challenging the much bigger Patrick Maroon. The spark was lit and the team won 2-1 in a shootout in front of Lack. Shots were 35-29 in this one for the road team.

I have talked about six sets of back-to-back games and so far I have not considered fatigue to be a factor. There was the second game of a back-to-back in late October where I have to say the Canucks looked tired. Miller played in St. Louis on October 23rd. On the 21st he was pulled in Dallas after allowing five goals. He and his teammates played one of their best games of the year. They won 4-1 and were full value for their effort. It was an emotional night and took its toll. It is hard enough to play in the mile high city with a full nights rest, but if you have flown into Denver you know it is going to be late. The airport might as well be in Boulder. The Avalanche had lost six of their first seven games and were having trouble scoring. They had nine goals for in those games. They were due. They were all over the Canucks and Lack. The score was 7-3. The other Canuck back-to-back was in the third and fourth games of the season. Miller played the first three and had a shutout in Edmonton on the Friday; Tampa Bay was the opponent on Saturday and had played in Calgary on the Wednesday. Steve Stamkos scored on his first shot and had three points. The Canucks did not look tired, but lost 4-2.

I look at these and most people say, “well you have to take advantage of a tired team, they played the night before.” Look at the Calgary Flames game 10 days ago. They played the night before and lost 6-5 at home. They had a backup goalie starting and you knew they were going to shut it down. They won 1-0. The Canucks, after the all-star break have a six-game homestand. Five of the teams coming in play the night before. Check to see how they do to really see if they are tired.

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