Last year, as I wipe away my final, still remaining tear, the Canucks stumbled short of the Stanley Cup prize by losing their last two games, including most infamously the finale at home to the Boston Bruins.
All the energy generated by their exhilarating regular season and playoff run simply drained away, leaving fans feeling empty, exhausted and unfortunately quite bitter in many circles.
Many saw the loss of the championship as a series of errors in judgement on the part of the team, whether that is a fair assessment or not.
Others proclaimed that poor fortune such as a trail of injuries and poor refereeing was the real culprit.
However, the Canucks aren’t the only ones in this boat, as every team must go through their own obstacles of bad luck and faults of their own device.
The Bruins managed to muster their forces and rose above despite the emotionally wrought losses to late Raffi Torres and Alex Burrows game winners in the first two matches of the final, as well as the frightening and potentially devastating loss of Nathan Horton to a severe injury.
The Canucks can of course be inspired by teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins who failed at their first hurdle, only to come back stronger and able to clinch the Stanley Cup on their second chance.
There is no single reason I believe that can be attributed to the Canucks losing the final. It was really an amalgamation of causes. We will discuss each one here and comment on what has changed or what needs to be different this time around.
The Issue – In the playoffs teams endure the inevitable spate of knocks and bruises and worse. The “Nucks went through a doozy of a time last year.
Ryan Kesler had a nagging hip injury requiring off-season surgery, Ehrhoff suffered from a painful shoulder, Henrik Sedin was likely hurting from something that he never revealed, and of course Dan Hamhuis and Mason Raymond were knocked out altogether.
The Solution – Injuries are nearly impossible to avoid in such a supercharged atmosphere as the playoffs provide. However, proactive teams look to mitigate such possibilities by maintaining fitness, rotating players, and providing rest days in advance.
Coach Alain Vigneault and his staff have managed this aspect exceedingly well already, without sacrificing the push to retain home ice advantage.
The Issue – No position is fraught with as much of a spotlight and reliance on form as the goaltender role. When the player in question struggles, the concern is whether to let the player play through it or instead yank the starter and go to the back-up.
The Solution – Last year, Roberto Luongo admittedly struggled, but with a greener alternative in Cory Schneider, Coach AV felt his best option was Lou, and he did get the team so close despite a poor final round. This year AV wisely increased the number of starts for Schneids and not just as a mop up ‘tender.
He played in some key matches with big name opponents, including his start against the Bruins in Boston. That experience and a likely shorter leash will create some competition and a sharper focus for each netminder this time around.
The Issue –When the injuries struck, the Canucks struggled to score and were unable to prevent the Bruins taking advantage. The Sedins in particular were unable to pick up an obviously hampered Kesler.
The defence also suffered with the injury to Ehrhoff and the emotional impact from Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton.
The Solution – GM Mike Gillis went out and added pieces such as David Booth, Zack Kassian, and Samme Pahlsson in early and late season trades. Booth upgrades the wing with speed and some scoring. Kassian brings some size and hopefully muscle.
Pahlsson may be the most vital acquisition by taking the defensive responsibilities off Kesler, so that he can focus on the offensive side of his game.
The defence is now nine quality players deep. Chris Tanev has been groomed and sports a startling +10 rating in his 25 games so far. Keith Ballard should be back soon, and key figures such as Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa are rested and healthy.
Toughness & Discipline
The Issue –Last year, the Canucks were accused of being soft (picture the notorious punching flurry by ‘Ratboy’ Brad Marchand on Daniel) and unable to cope. They also responded poorly to controversial refereeing decisions.
The Solution – The team must be more responsive when challenged, yet balance that with the restraint they favour to earn power play time. The grit the team showed in challenging Duncan Keith when he viciously elbowed Daniel saw them ready to stand up for one another without plunging helplessly over the line.
The acquisitions of Dale Weise, Kassian and the promotion of Byron Bitz (all big, strong guys who have skill and skate) also demonstrate they are ready to go toe to toe, but not by merely employing goons with little else to contribute.
The Issue –Some observers felt that Alain Vigneault was unable to adjust when things went sour, and he stuck with failing players and lines too long.
The Solution – AV must be continuously evolving in his preparation and tactics and he has already shown signs of that throughout the stretch run.
He has given guys maintenance time, shifted defensive partners and forward linemates to cement understanding among various possible combinations.
He has also dropped underperforming players and provided new roles for deserved hard workers such as Chris Higgins.
Wednesday, we start to see if the lessons have been imparted well.
Check out our Keys to the Vancouver Canucks winning round One vs. L.A. article.