By Jeff Paterson
It's probably the most-overused cliché in the sport - you know, the fact that hockey is a 60 minute game. But as far as the Vancouver Canucks are concerned these days, hockey has become more of a 20 minute game. That's because in each of their last 13 games, the Canucks have been tied with their opponent or within a goal at some point in the third period.
In other words, every game the Canucks are involved in is coming down to the final 20 minutes. But unlike earlier in the season when the Canucks seemed unable to find a way to prevail in tight contests, right now they can't seem to lose.
All four of the victories on the Canucks' current four game win streak have been by one goal and the team is 8-2-3 in the 13 games since a 4-0 romp in Montreal in the middle of January. That was the last time the Canucks had much chance to relax in a third period.
Even in games like a recent win over Atlanta where the Canucks had built a 3-0 lead, they had to hold on for dear life at the end to preserve a one goal win. And a recent 3-0 shutout loss to Chicago may give the appearance of an easy win for the Blackhawks, but that was a 1-0 hockey game until late in the third before the Canucks yielded a pair of late empty-net goals.
It amounts to playing in a pressure cooker on a nightly basis, but the players think in the long run the experience gained now should pay off in the playoffs.
"I'd have to bet that we've been in the most one-goal games in the league. It speaks to your goaltending, Roberto giving us a chance to win every night. A lot of times it's him holding the fort until we're able to get him one or two," Brendan Morrison says. "When we go into the third period tied or up one or down one, maybe in the past we were a little antsy, but now it's commonplace. It's just go out and play."
For a player like Alex Burrows, the pressure is even greater in tight games. He's become a key cog in the league's best penalty killing unit and he knows that special teams will often decide the outcomes of games. But the second year forward is having the time of his life being thrown into such tough situations.
"It's all about hard work and Roberto making the big saves at the key moment. Playing on the PK a lot helps for playing in the one goal games. Every time we go out there to kill a penalty we know it can give the team momentum," Burrows says. "It's about being focussed and making sure you do the right plays and the right reads and we should be alright."
And more often than not that has been the case. The Canucks lead the NHL with 22 one-goal victories and 36 of their 59 games (61%) have been decided by the narrowest of margins. Perhaps the Canucks' comfort in close games is one of the reasons they're 8-1 in overtime this season.
Rory Fitzpatrick is no stranger to playing under pressure. Part of Buffalo's run to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final last spring, the first year Canuck has seen his teammates learn from the mistakes made earlier in the season when they were unable to win close hockey games. Now, Fitzpatrick says, the Canucks know what's necessary to prevail in the tight ones.
"It's a confidence thing. You win a couple of them and realize what you have to do. Obviously Louie's been great and saved us many times," Fitzpatrick says of the razor-thin line between winning and losing in the NHL. "There's a lot that goes into winning those games. Most of the time you'll see teams sit back and get away from their game plan. You have to stay with the plan and go at them and go on the offense and play in their zone as much as possible. If you sit back and let them take the play to you and let them take their chances, it's going to cost you. Playoffs are a lot of one goal games and a lot of pressure, so the more of them you're in in the regular season the more comfortable you'll be at playoff time."
And with the amount of close games the Canucks have been involved in all season, but particularly recently, they should be remarkably comfortable by the time the post-season rolls around.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org