VANCOUVER – Vancouver Canucks forward Chris Higgins called linemate Radim Vrbata an assassin after a two-goal game late in the regular season, but he is no longer a silent assassin.
With Vrbata's 31 goals leading the Canucks, it's hard to ignore the significance of his role in their return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the postseason last year. Forget unsung hero, Vrbata is the Canucks MVP in many eyes, and Higgins has noticed other teams are paying special attention to the soft-spoken sniper too.
"You look at the stat sheet and see Vrbata has 31 goals and you are going to put some good players out against him," Higgins said. "You get a little more attention playing with him for sure."
That could a good thing for the Canucks now that Vrbata is no longer playing on their top line with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. After a strong start to his first season in Vancouver playing to the right of Sedin twins, Vrbata is having late-season success with Higgins and Nick Bonino on the Canucks' second line.
Vrbata, 33, has nine goals and 10 assists in 22 games since Bonino returned from a lower-body injury in late February. The line has 18 goals and 33 points in that span despite Higgins also missing three games with a lower-body injury in early March.
"They are both smart players and we have been together a while now so that helps," Vrbata said. "If you are changing linemates every other game there is no time to build chemistry. If you stay and play with somebody for a number of games you learn their tendencies. Sometimes you have to make blind passes and when you know the guy is going to be there that makes it easier."
The focus of that chemistry is often getting Vrbata the puck.
"I feel good playing with Nick, I know what he wants to do out there and with Vrbata, you give him three chances a game he is going to score on one of them," Higgins said. "So just try to find him and give him the puck when he wants it and your chances of having a good play coming off his stick in the offensive zone, the odds go up."
If other teams have indeed taken notice, it bodes well for the Canucks heading into the Western Conference First Round against the Calgary Flames. The recent emergence of Vancouver's second line might make opposing coaches think twice about focusing defensive matchups exclusively on the Sedins, in large part because of Vrbata's deft finishing touch.
"He's one of the best guys I've seen in the League around the net," Higgins said. "He knows how much time and space he has around the net and that's a skill I don't know if you can teach. It just seems like he has such great awareness around the net that he knows what he wants to do with the puck before he gets around that area."
Canucks general manager Jim Benning hoped that skillset would benefit the Sedins when he targeted Vrbata as an unrestricted free agent last summer. Vrbata also cited the opportunity to skate with the playmaking twins as the biggest reason for accepting the Canucks' two-year, $10-million contract over other offers that included more money and term.
The trio started well together, with Vrbata scoring five goals and assisting on six others in his first nine games, and they still hop over the boards together as part of a top power-play unit that is also enjoying a late-season resurgence.
Right Wing - VAN
GOALS: 31 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 63
SOG: 267 | +/-: 6
At even strength, however, Vrbata may be helping the Sedins just as much playing on a different line, adding secondary punch to an attack that has relied on all four lines under the balanced approach stressed by first-year Canucks coach Willie Desjardins. Vancouver has 11 players with at least 10 goals this season and their scoring improvement from an average of 2.33 goals per game last season (28th in the NHL) to 2.88 this year (eighth) is the biggest increase in the League.
Coming off their worst offensive seasons in more than a decade, Daniel Sedin is ninth in the League with 76 points and Henrik Sedin isn't far behind with 73. And Vrbata's 31 goals are the most by a Canucks player since Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler each scored 41 in 2010-11, a season that ended in the Stanley Cup Final.
"You have to have everybody, that's how we were successful all year, where everybody contributes and everybody somehow pitches in," Vrbata said. "The games we win we have four lines going."
Having Vrbata and the Sedin twins spread over two of those lines has helped. The Canucks need it to continue in the playoffs.
"We're going to have to play big minutes and produce and be able to play against other teams' top lines," Higgins said.
None of that has been a problem for Vrbata so far.