Mission One: Stop Iginla: Red-hot Calgary captain is a one-man wrecking crew
Marc Weber said the Canucks road to the division title must go through a streaking Jerome Iginla and a streaky Flames squad:
To a man, the Vancouver Canucks said Monday their sights are still firmly on first place in the Northwest Division.
With seven games remaining -- all against division opponents -- starting tonight as a crucial three-game roadtrip kicks off in Calgary, they'll have as much to say about where they finish as anyone.
"All the rest of our games are against divisional opponents. We know if that we do our job and we come to play every night the rest of the way we have a good chance of being there [in top spot]," said Roberto Luongo
The latest piece of business comes in the form of the Flames and their red-hot Jarome Iginla. The captain had eight goals in seven games heading into Monday night's action, including a hat trick against Minnesota on Saturday.
Shutdown centre Ryan Kesler
, with linemates Alex Burrows and Daniel Sedin
, must play a key role in limiting Iginla, as should defenceman Willie Mitchell.
So far, the Canucks have limited Iginla to one goal and two helpers. With the teams squaring off three times down the stretch, it's a matchup that could get quite testy.
"He's that kind of guy who brings it every night," said Burrows. "He's rolling right now and we'll have to make sure we compete hard against him ... make sure we know where he is at all times. We've got to be a physical group."
The Canucks are 4-1 against the Flames and Luongo has a lot to do with it. In Vancouver's last three wins over Calgary, they were outshot 99-65. Luongo was also strong in the 2-1 loss Dec. 31, when he was outduelled by Miikka Kiprusoff.
Vancouver's ace dispelled any notion, however, that going head-to-head with another all-world goalie added motivation.
"It's a big rivalry and we're fighting for the division. That's really what gets me going," he said.
Coach Alain Vigneault decides his lineup today, but with three Flames scrapping Saturday it's hard to see him making changes. Jeff Cowan and Rick Rypien will play alongside Trevor Linden, while Nathan McIver gets the blueline nod.
THE VANCOUVER SUN
Keeping mum over Luongo: Vigneault has 'different scenarios' in place should goaltender leave for child's birth
Elliott Pap said the Canucks are prepared to handle the absence of Roberto Luongo
when his wife gives birth in the next two weeks:
The Vancouver Canucks have a game plan tonight for Roberto Luongo
should their main man suddenly need to bolt for Florida and the birth of his first child.
Head coach Alain Vigneault managed to laugh about it Monday, but it will be no laughing matter if Luongo is changing his first diaper with Vancouver's season hanging in the balance.
"As far as his wife giving birth, I can't control that part," Vigneault chuckled following an hour-long practice at GM Place. "We've got different scenarios laid out that I'm not at liberty to share with you right now. I think his focus right now, as far as his professionalism, is on Calgary and our next game.
"I'm sure he's in contact with his wife and we're going to make this work."
"We're thinking about all sorts of scenarios," replied Vigneault. "When it's time for Roberto to go and be with his wife, he's going to go. That's the No. 1 priority. That's the way it is."
Luongo, of course, is loathe to get into specifics. Obviously he is excited about the pending birth due in early April -- next week! -- but he is more intent on keeping his mind uncluttered so he can concentrate on stopping Jarome Iginla and his pals.
"Right now, it's one day at a time for me, honestly," said Luongo. "You can't think about too many things at the same time or it's just going to set you back. I'm looking forward to both [the baby, the games] and I'm going to enjoy it the most that I can.
"There are a million different scenarios and I can't start worrying about everything that could happen. You just hope everything can work out."
Luongo's teammates are acutely aware he is one phone call away from missing a game or possibly two. Assistant captain Brendan Morrison says the netminder has their blessing.
"You have to put your family first," said Morrison, a father of three. "There are few things in life you can experience that intimately with another person. There are more games. There will always be more games. But to be there, if you can be there, if you have the chance to be there for the birth of your child, it's a no-brainer."
Morrison noted that if the Canucks can reel off a few victories before the little Luongo arrives, that would certainly help matters.
"Hopefully we can get a couple of wins here and get a bit of a cushion where Roberto can take that leave of absence and have some peace of mind," Morrison said.
THE VANCOUVER SUN
The Heat Is On…and blue-line veteran Willie Mitchell revels in it
Iain MacIntyre said Willie Mitchell is playing is best hockey at the time of year that matters most:
The Vancouver Canuck defenceman has had a good season. Period. But he has been superb this month, a difference-maker in the last four games. And the greatest compliment we can give Mitchell is that this is merely what we expect of him in March, with the Stanley Cup playoffs approaching like the National Hockey League's truth serum.
In the last four games, beginning the night in Dallas when Mitchell willed himself up off the ice to continue a penalty kill after a puck he blocked introduced his front teeth to the back of his mouth, the 30-year-old from Vancouver Island has averaged 28:47 of ice time (5.5 minutes above his season average)..
"I think really, to be honest ... this time of year players like myself get a lot more media attention because there are a lot tighter, checking games," Mitchell pleaded Monday. "So people maybe tend to appreciate what I do more this time of year. It kind of gets overlooked in the course of the season maybe."
"Guys go harder to the net. Every play is magnified 10 times more this time of year. I don't have a lot of goals other than getting to the playoffs as a team. And my goal in hockey is to win a Stanley Cup. And that's where my focus is this time of year."
Mitchell tried to dismiss the evidence of his heightened impact, arguing his minutes have gone up because key defenceman Mattias Ohlund is out with a knee injury.
But the prosecution countered that Ohlund missed 11 games over the New Year and that absence caused no spike in Mitchell's playing time.
Mitchell is guilty of playing his best hockey now.
At the most feverish time of the season, with the Canucks driving for the playoffs -- often on the soft shoulder of the road -- Mitchell hasn't registered a minus in 11 games despite playing nightly against the opposition's best forwards; he is plus-5 during this stretch.
With pressure seemingly doubling with each game, Mitchell is thriving.
"Players are made this time of year," Mitchell admitted. "Some people elevate their game this time of year and some people don't deal well with it. It depends. I enjoy it. I like the battles, like the intensity. There's been a lot of players in the history of the league that enjoy this time of year. I'm one of them."
"You can't afford to have off nights because it's the difference between being in the playoffs and not in the playoffs," Mitchell said. "Everyone has to focus a little more and be a little more mentally prepared ... and do what you have to do to get wins.”
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Playoff-style games the rest of the way
Matthew Sekeres said teams have to be good to get to the playoffs, but must be better to experience success:
Barring an uninterrupted winning streak to finish off their schedule, the Vancouver Canucks will not enter the NHL postseason as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
But with the Canucks embarking on their final trip of the season, a three-gamer through the airtight Northwest Division, including a contest tonight against the Calgary Flames, the team expects playoff-style games and should get a gauge on how it stacks up against other postseason teams. Four teams are still vying for first place in the division and, for that matter, playoff berths in the Western Conference.
Vancouver will play Calgary, the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild this week before returning home on Sunday for four games at General Motors Place, including two against the Flames and one against the Avalanche, to finish off the 82-game haul.
Just how legitimate are the Canucks as Cup contenders?
There are plenty of warts to point out, but head coach Alain Vigneault and the players realize they have a proven formula in the playoffs that begins with world-class goaltender Roberto Luongo
and extends to a crew of solid defencemen and defensively responsible forwards.
"Getting to the playoffs in the NHL is a lot more challenging than people make it out to be," Vigneault said yesterday. "There are a lot of good teams that aren't going to get to the dance this year.
"With a goaltender like ours, you guys know more than anybody, anything can happen." The Canucks need to cull nine points in their next seven games to make the playoffs, which should be a safe bet.
Among the Northwest contenders, Vancouver has the best goal-differential (plus-11) and the fewest goals permitted (187), heading into games last night. The Wild, for example, had scored one fewer goal than it had allowed and the Flames have permitted 12 more goals than the Canucks in the same number of games.
Vancouver also has good head-to-head records against Calgary (4-1) and Minnesota (3-3-1), if not Colorado (1-3-2), and has earned 41 points in 38 road games. The Wild have 42 points away from home, while the Flames and Avalanche have 39 and 36, respectively.