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Canucks, Senators need a win at Heritage Classic

by Adam Kimelman

VANCOUVER -- Players and coaches from the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators were unanimous in their enjoyment of their day on the ice at BC Place.

The day featured about an hour-long practice for each team followed by an hour or so of time on the ice with family and friends. But they also were unanimous in knowing that the fun they had Saturday will turn into an important game Sunday when they hit the ice for the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

"It's a crucial stage for us in the season," Canucks goalie Eddie Lack said. "As much as it's fun out there we really need to focus on getting the two points. That's going to be the most important thing."

The Canucks enter Sunday with 66 points, the same as the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars; Dallas owns the second and final wild-card spot in the Western Conference because it has played two fewer games than the other teams.

Vancouver's biggest problem has been on offense; the Canucks have scored one goal or fewer in five of their past six games and entered are 25th in the League in scoring at 2.34 goals per game.

The lack of production has been most evident among the team's top players. Neither Henrik Sedin nor Daniel Sedin has scored a goal since the calendar flipped to 2014; Daniel Sedin has gone 21 games without a goal while Henrik Sedin has five points, all assists, in his past 13 games. Ryan Kesler has goals in back-to-back games but is playing through a hand injury and previously had one goal in nine games. Four-time 20-goal scorer Alexandre Burrows has five points, all assists, in 30 games; the last time he scored in the regular season was April 15, 2013.

However, coach John Tortorella said he's planning on sticking with the same top two lines he's been using -- the Sedins with Burrows on the top line and Kesler centering Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. He said he was encouraged to stay with those combinations by what he saw in the Canucks' 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday.

"The second half of the game I thought [Burrows] started coming," Tortorella said. "I thought he was skating better. I thought he was around the puck more. I thought their line, again, didn't generate a lot of great chances, but I thought it was better. We're going to stay with him for now and keep trying to grind our way through it and see if they can find themselves."

Despite the lack of offense at even strength and on the power play - the Canucks are 28th with the extra man and 3-for-40 in their past 12 games - Tortorella feels the key is for his players to stay with the structure that's in place rather than start freelancing to find offense. He believes his best players will start producing offensively at any moment.

"My biggest concern from our team, because I think we've played really well the past two games, is staying with our structure away from the puck until we get some sort of fluid play offensively," he said. "I think we will. But we can't open it up and start trying to run-and-gun, start trying to cheat to create our offense. We have to stay sound defensively, which I'm very happy with in the past couple of games. Then hopefully our big guys find themselves."

Tortorella thinks even something as small as playing in a unique venue like BC Place could be just what his players need to snap out of its scoring funk.

"When you talk about a team that's struggling offensively, sometimes when you get into an outdoor situation you feel like it's back when you were playing pond hockey," he said. "I think some of our guys need to offensively allow themselves to play some shinny hockey. Just let them play. Maybe this will help us. I don't know. But you can't help but enjoy it when you're in a type of situation like this, and I want it to. Maybe it will loosen them up.

Henrik Sedin said he doesn't feel like he or his teammates have been pressing offensively, but did agree that the change of venue could make a difference.

"I think we've been loose," he said. "I don't think we're tight as a group. … I think for us to be successful we need to stay within our structure. But when we get the puck we need to make more plays and be more creative."

While the Canucks' problem has been putting the puck in the net, the Senators' difficulties have come in trying to keep it out. Ottawa resumed play after the Olympic break on Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings and allowed four goals in a 7:01 span of the first period en route to a 6-1 loss. That came on the heels of a 7-2 loss to the Boston Bruins in their final game before the break, a game that saw the Bruins score three times in the third period.

The Senators are 28th in the League defensively, allowing 3.18 goals per game.

"They've got two real good top lines and we have to make sure we play our best [Sunday]," Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson said. "Lately we haven't been that great defensively. It's something we've been working on."

Defenseman Marc Methot said there have been a lot of areas examined during meetings.

"You almost have to have six, seven points out of this eight. That's not lost on anybody in our room."
-- Senators F Bobby Ryan

"We're going over a lot of stuff on video," he said. "Just identifying our guys, not losing your man in the [defensive] zone. It's not that you're playing man on man, you just have to be in between the offensive player and the net. When you start getting out of position and you're playing against great hockey players they'll expose you."

Senators coach Paul MacLean believes better defense will come from better puck management. His team had 13 giveaways against the Red Wings and 13 against the Bruins. The Senators have hit double figures in giveaways in three straight games and entered Saturday ninth in the League with 548.

"We have to stop turning over the puck," MacLean said. "We've had this bugaboo with our team a lot earlier in the season, we haven't had it lately. But when we started against Detroit the other night the game was kind of going along pretty good and we ended up all of a sudden at 4-0. We turned the puck over three times in a row, took a penalty they scored on.

"In this League we understand and know good teams are going to make you pay or every team's going to make you pay. Taking care of the puck has been something that we've focused on a lot at the start of the year and it's something we continue to do. We have to make sure that we do it [Sunday]."

The Senators are five points behind the Red Wings in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 22 games left, and the Heritage Classic is the first game of a four-game trip through Western Canada that could be the determining factor if the Senators are going to make a drive for a playoff spot or start building for the future ahead of the March 5 NHL Trade Deadline.

"This is a huge week for us, this trip," forward Bobby Ryan said. "Some tough buildings to go into. We have to find a way … you almost have to have six, seven points out of this eight. That's not lost on anybody in our room."

The Heritage Classic also starts a big chance for the Canucks, who will play 11 of their final 20 games at home as they attempt to get back into a playoff spot.

After the fun of Saturday, there will be two very desperate teams taking the ice Sunday.

"We cannot lose focus on what the objective of the game is," said Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who will start against the Canucks. "The venue has changed, the atmosphere has changed, but the objective … It's going to be more exciting, different venue and experience but the end result still has to be two point. That's the goal."


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