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Road Toll

by Kyle Harland / Vancouver Canucks
If you know country singer Willie Nelson, you know that he “just can’t wait to get on the road again.” I don’t think he has much in common with the Canucks right now.

The Canucks played their seventh game of a stretch of eight in eight different cities Thursday night against San Jose (seven road games and one home game), and for the first time during the trip, it looked like it was really taking its toll.

The first indication that the travels might be getting to the team happened even before the puck dropped. Ryan Kesler skated for part of the warm up, but decided it wouldn’t be wise to play with his flu-like symptoms and had to sit this one out. As one of the Canucks’ most consistent players, and a great defensive checker who would have been welcome to play against the likes of Joe Thornton, it wasn’t good news for the Canucks.

That caused coach Alain Vigneault to replace him with Trevor Linden, who played with Alex Burrows and Matt Cooke. The fourth line was also a new combo due to injuries to regulars Brendan Morrison, Brad Isbister, and Jeff Cowan. Mike Brown and Byron Ritche played with Mike Weaver – who’s usually a defenseman. Oh, and some Luongo guy wasn’t available, either.

But while the Canucks had to reach deeper into their depth chart than usual, if they played well, they certainly had a good chance of stealing the game from the Sharks – they already proved that Wednesday night when they beat the Anaheim Ducks with big help from rookies Mason Raymond and Jason Jaffray.

Unfortunately, on the seventh game in the seventh city in a span of twelve days, the Canucks just didn’t have enough gas in the tank.

The Sharks played a sound defensive game, clogging up the neutral zone and refusing the Canucks entrance to their zone. The Canucks seemed content to play into that strategy for the first two periods, and it put them down by a score of 3-0. The Canucks had just 10 shots over the first 40 minutes, and finding just one scoring chance in there was a challenge.

It was only after Vigneault juggled his lines in the third period when the Canucks were able to pressure the Sharks and get their first real chances of the game. Hank Sedin and Trevor Linden each scored to pull the Canucks within a goal, but the momentum was short lived as a pair of defensive miscues led to a pair of Shark goals, and they were quickly back where they started: down three goals, this time at a score of 5-2.

The offense may have lacked intensity, and some of the goals could have been prevented by an energized defense, but no one can blame the Canucks for this loss. It’s tough to play on the road, and the last road trip that was as epic as this starred Tom Green. So if the Canucks aren’t 100 percent right now, it’s nothing to worry about.

Since they started the trip on Dec. 2 (with one home game sandwiched among them), they’re 3-3-1, a very respectable record for playing so many games with so much travel time in such a short period of time. Especially after playing the previous night in Anaheim, any NHL team would be running on empty if they were in Vancouver’s position in the schedule.

The Canucks now get a day of rest before heading to Edmonton to cap off the road trip. A win would be a great way to finish it off, but whatever the outcome, the Canucks should be pleased to have battled through injuries and fatigue and still sit atop their division.

1 – plus player on the Canucks Thursday night: Alex Edler finished at plus-1, and leads the team and this year’s rookie class in plus/minus with plus-12

5 – shots for Alex Burrows, leading both teams

6 – points by Joe Thornton in three games against the Canucks this season

9 – saves on 11 shots by Drew MacIntyre in his first NHL game

55:30 – minutes of even strength

The Canucks looked like a team that had been traveling for nearly two weeks. They were able to generate some pressure in the third period and score two goals, but that was the only time in the game that Vancouver didn’t play into the Sharks’ defensive game plan.

Like the offense, looked a little tired at times. If Vancouver’s defense had more gas in the tank, they could have prevented four of the five San Jose goals, but Thursday a lack of speed and focus let them down.

There were hardly any special teams to speak of. The game had a grand total of five penalties, the Sharks getting 3:20 of power play time and the Canucks with 1:10. San Jose scored their first goal on the power play, but this game was far from a battle of special teams.
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