Cliche season comes early this year: Tonight's contest vs. Minnesota is a 'big game,' a real 'must-win'
Jason Botchford said ‘must-wins’ must start with a better defensive game:
The season has unofficially changed for the Vancouver Canucks: It's must-win time.
It came early this year. But get ready to hear, daily, about "big games," "huge games" and, of course, "must-wins."
That's because the Canucks, with their "backs against the wall," have to produce "60-minute efforts" every game if they want to make the playoffs in a season that will "go down to the wire."
"There's 25 games left and every one of them is important," Ryan Kesler
There's no better moment than now to launch must-win season as the Canucks prepare for their first of three against divisional rivals, including two against the Northwest Division-leading Minnesota Wild.
To get those must wins, the Canucks will have to rediscover their defensive game that was so effective in November. It was then that Kesler broke out in his new shutdown role, capturing headlines and NHL-wide recognition for his defensive play.
Kesler arguably played his best hockey in the 15 games from Nov. 8 to Dec. 8, a stretch that culminated in a signature game against Pittsburgh in which he scored a goal of his own while helping to keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet.
In those 15 games, Kesler, playing more minutes than any forward and matching up nightly against the best forwards in the game, was only on the ice for eight goals against. That is a phenomenal number.
Compare it to Kesler's last 15 games during which he has been on the ice for 20 goals against.
"That's a challenging role and a challenging responsibility for Kes and [his linemate Alex Burrows]," coach Alain Vigneault said. "In general, they've been good and I really liked their game against Chicago.
"When we got on a roll it was because they were real good and we need them to be real good. We know that and they know that."
Kesler doesn't think his play has tailed off significantly on the defensive side.
"For whatever reason, I've been on the minus side of things," said Kesler, who is a minus-6 in his past 15 games. "I think there's been a lot of bad bounces. But on the offensive side, I just haven't been there."
Vigneault said he would like to see more offensive production from "14 or 15" of his players, including Kesler, who has five points in his past 15 games.
"It's something I don't want to focus too much on because my first job, obviously, is defence," Kesler said. "I think the team does need secondary scoring. I think we are going to get that secondary scoring by a committee, not just one line or one guy."
Kesler is looking to carry the momentum he established against the Blackhawks into the Wild game, where he will spend most of his time matched with Marian Gaborik. In four games this year, Gaborik has two goals against the Canucks. In his career against Vancouver, Gaborik has 15 goals in 31 games.
"I don't think I'll have to watch much video for this one," Kesler said. "I think I've played against the Wild about 40 times in my career. I think everyone knows their tendencies pretty good by now."
THE VANCOUVER SUN
Stakes are high for Canucks over next three games
Brad Ziemer said a chance at the division title and a secured playoff lie within the Canucks next three games:
The way Willie Mitchell and Trevor Linden see it, if you are forced to play catch-up in the NHL, then it helps to play the teams you are trying to catch.
The Canucks at least have that much going for themselves.
Vancouver plays its next three games -- and 14 of its final 25 --against fellow Northwest Division teams.
"That's perfect," said Mitchell, who is expected to return to action tonight after missing 10 games with a bad back. "Obviously, we have had a tough stretch, everyone knows that, and when you play against the teams ahead of you, that's exactly what you want, that's the best position you can be in."
The Canucks, currently ninth in the West and fourth in the Northwest Division, meet the Northwest-leading Minnesota Wild tonight at General Motors Place. The same two teams meet next Tuesday in St. Paul, with a Saturday home game against the Edmonton Oilers sandwiched between those two outings.
We should have a good idea of the Canucks' chances of successfully defending their Northwest Division crown after these next three games.
The Wild have a five-point lead on the Canucks, who must at least cut into that margin in the next week to realistically have a chance of overtaking the Wild.
"We're in a position where we are playing the team that is leading our division and it's a chance for us to gain ground," Mitchell said. "It's a huge game and we're looking forward to it."
Okay, but first things first. The Canucks have some other teams to worry about passing before catching the Wild. Like Nashville, Calgary and Colorado, who are all ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.
Linden, who knows about the ebb and flow of a season better than most, thinks crunch time has come early for the Canucks. If the Canucks can play well over this next stretch, then they have a legitimate chance of winning the Northwest or at least securing a playoff berth. If not, then the last few games of the season may not mean much.
"You could look at the last month of the season, but you can't look past now," Linden said after Wednesday's practice. "This is as big as those last four or five games of the season because those may not matter if we don't get some points here."
Like Mitchell, Linden does see the advantage of playing a bunch of games against fellow Northwest Division teams.
"That's the one thing, when you are trying to get a spot, you obviously want these games that are against teams in your division and head-to-head matches," he said. "That's the good part, but the flip side of that is you have to win or you dig yourself more of a hole."
The Canucks tonight will try and do something they haven't managed in more than a month: Extend a one-game winning streak to two. It has been a long time since this team had momentum on its side.
"Momentum is a tough thing," Linden said. "The way we're going right now, we need more than one win to get some momentum. I think we need to string together some wins and really solidify our game a little bit. We have kind of been grinding hard, we're up and down a little bit, but we have to put some wins together to really get some so-called momentum."
Mitchell thinks tonight is as good a time as any to start.
"Obviously, last year we won our division and this year we feel we can do it again," he said. "We've had a lot of injuries, we are starting to get a few bodies back ... If we can get our blue line back somewhat healthy and get our key guys back, we feel like it will help change things around a little bit.
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Canuck Shannon spins season around
The Canadian Press said Ryan Shannon is looking to make a name for himself in the NHL:
A frustrating season for Ryan Shannon has finally shown signs of turning around, but the Vancouver Canucks forward knows things can change pretty quickly when you're trying to hold onto a job in the NHL.
Shannon made highlight reels when he scored on a spin-o-rama move in a shootout Sunday night to give the Canucks a much needed win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Shannon had two goals and 11 assists in 53 games with the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks last season. He also had two goals and nine points in 14 games with the AHL Portland Pirates.
He was traded to Vancouver in June for Jason King and future considerations.
Shannon started the season with the Canucks, scoring twice in three games, but was sent to the AHL Manitoba Moose after Vancouver's disastrous 8-2 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 10. He was a minus-4 in that game, leaving him minus-7.
"I didn't see it coming but I understood it," said Shannon. "I understand when things don't go well in the NHL, especially in a market like this, there is a demand for success."
Shannon tried to take a positive attitude to Manitoba.
"I think the best way to go about this business is to play emotional but not let the highs get too high and the lows get too low."
Shannon, who is expected to be in the lineup for Vancouver's important divisional game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, wants to make the most of his chance with the Canucks.
"It's another window of opportunity for me to prove that I can play here," he said.
"I've always had self-confidence in my abilities. I feel like I'm prepared and willing to sacrifice the things that need to be sacrificed. I'm excited to be in the NHL. You have to perform and you have to be lucky as well."
So far coach Alain Vigneault has liked what he's seen.
"He's had good speed and skill," said Vigneault. "He seems to have good hockey sense.
"This is a young man that has a lot of confidence in his ability. It's unfortunate for him that he got injured because he would have been here a lot quicker. We think he's an offensive player and we are expecting him to contribute that way."
Mitchell denies any rift with Vigneault over injury recovery: 'Really, it's nothing,' according to D-man
Jason Botchford said there is no conflict between Mitchell and Vigneault:
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell laughed off the notion there's some sort of rift between him and his coach, Alain Vigneault.
"No, absolutely not," Mitchell said Wednesday when asked if he had any issues with Vigneault. "I think less is more with everything. When you give answers to people they are, sometimes, tweaked and made in certain ways to make it sound like there is a rift between people. I think that's the case right now.
"I think everyone is making a big deal about all this stuff. I think it's pretty simple. Him, as a coach, wants me back because I'm a guy who can help the team. It's that simple.
"Me, as a player, I'm hurt, was hurt, feeling pain. Once my pain goes away I'm going to be back in the lineup."
Mitchell is expected to be back in the lineup tonight against Minnesota. It will be his first game back since Jan. 17. On Jan. 21, a CT scan revealed he had a stress fracture in a vertebra in his lower back.