Are The Vancouver Canucks Tough Enough To Win It All?

Twice in their history the Vancouver Canucks have come within one game of winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup and come up short. The most painful was last season, when they had the best record in hockey, had the Boston Bruins down 2-0 and 3-2 in games in last year’s Finals, before finally being hammered in Games 6 & 7 to end the dream. The Canucks are riding high this year too, leading the Western Conference on the strength of a seven-game win streak and tied with the New York Rangers for the most points overall. Ironically the Rangers are the other team to beat Vancouver in Game 7 of the Finals, that being back in 1994. Can the 2012 Vancouver Canucks get that one additional win? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the team overall and looks specifically at their current seven-game win streak to find some answers…

Vancouver does everything well offensively. Even with Daniel Sedin, one of the game’s top scorers, out with a concussion—his status for the playoffs is unknown—the Canucks still have his twin brother Henrik Sedin, who leads the NHL in assists and has some lamp-lighting ability of his own. Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows are respectable, if unspectacular scorers on the wings. With Daniel Sedin healthy, Higgins and Burrows are potent role players. With Sedin out, Higgins and Burrows are at least good enough to keep the offensive ship afloat. Vancouver also gets help from its defensemen, where Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa are effective passers.

Defensively the bottom line numbers are championship-quality—Vancouver is 4th in the NHL in preventing goals. But that’s thanks entirely to the goaltending duo of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Because this team is terrible in the area of preventing shots, where only five teams in the league do a worse job at protecting their goalie. We know a hot goalie forgives more sins than anyone this side of a Catholic priest, but the poor work of the defenseman on that side of the ice gives rise to the concern that this Vancouver team is too soft to go all the way.

Whether it’s the power play or straight 5-on-5 seems to matter not to Vancouver. They cash in their chances with the man advantage as well as anyone and they’re very good at killing penalties, thanks to Schneider and Luongo.

The month of March hadn’t been going well for Vancouver. They were trailing St. Louis in the Western standings and it looked like the Canucks were destined for the #2 seed in the West. When they arrived in Dallas on March 22 they’d lost eight of eleven. The Canucks haven’t lost since. Let’s take a walk through the ensuing seven games…

*A 2-1 win over Dallas was keyed by goals from Bieksa and Mason Raymond, the latter being a player who stepped up throughout this streak, with Schneider delivering a shutdown effort.

*The next two games illustrated what I mentioned further up about the goalie vis-à-vis the defense overall. On March 24 in Colorado, the Canucks were outshot 40-32. Two days later at home against Los Angeles the Kings outshot them 38-25. Vancouver won both games, Luongo the former and Schneider the latter. In the Colorado game the penalty kill had an offnight as the Canucks fell behind 2-0 early on power play goals, but a two-goal night from Higgins, the last one in overtime got the win. The game against Los Angeles ended 1-0.

*Another 1-0 win came against Colorado, as the Avalanche made a return visit to the Pacific Northwest. This time Vancouver dominated the goals, winning shots 43-22 and killing five penalties. Even though a shorthanded goal from Higgins was the only scoring chance, Vancouver played a complete hockey game.

*The month closed with back-to-back home games against Dallas and Calgary. Henrik Sedin’s passing was all over the first one, a 5-2 win. Sedin had two assists in the second period and another in the third as the Canucks gradually pulled away. In a 3-2 win over the Flames, Sedin has the feeder on the first and last goals.

*A sloppy 5-4 win over a lousy Anaheim team kept the streak going last night. The score was 2-2 after the first period and 4-4 after the second period. Sedin’s passing again drove the offense, with both Higgins and Burrow being on the receiving end for goals. The game ended up in a shootout where Vancouver continued to score, nailing all three of their chances.

The positive part of this win streak is that Vancouver has shown how well their offense can function without Daniel Sedin. The twin brother does a superb job creating scoring chances and the players around him can still capitalize. Obviously bringing Sedin back takes it to new levels, but Vancouver isn’t adrift without him. Another positive is that, with the exception of Anaheim, the teams beaten had varying degrees of playoff chances and none were sure things. One hopes, therefore, that Vancouver was beating teams playing at max intensity.

If we look to play naysayer we can point out that six of the seven wins were by just one goal and that while all the teams involved were contenders, none were strong contenders. A reasonable observer can say that all we learned from this win streak is that Vancouver can dominate its first-round opponent, which is not something anyone had in serious doubt to begin with. I think such a judgment might be a little harsh—in professional sports, winning seven in a row takes quality play under any circumstances, but it’s reasonable. The same goes for the close-game theory. If there’s any sport that’s diametrically opposite college football in terms of “style points” its hockey. A team playing well can make a one-goal lead seem impossible to overcome.

Ultimately the question will be one alluded to above—is this team physically tough enough to win championships or are they just an artistically sound team that will fold at the key moment? I’ll give full disclosure here—as a Boston fan I loathe Vancouver, not because we played them in the Finals, but because the Canucks played what I consider to be cheap and dirty hockey. You can note this horrid cheap shot that Aaron Rome inflicted on Boston’s top scorer Nathan Horton. Or the fact that Burrows tried to bite Bruin center Patrice Bergeron. Or the fact the city decided to riot after losing Game 7.

This year’s team would be better off playing genuinely tough—as opposed to dirty—hockey. They have the talent to win, and in spite of my biases, there’s no denying this is a team that knows how to move the puck. I would draw an analogy to where the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson’s era stood in 1984. There was no doubt the “Showtime” Lakers were fun to watch. But there were questions about whether they were tough enough to win in Boston Garden. This analogy only goes so far, because Magic had a couple rings, but circa 1984-85, the team was under fire for losing the Finals in seven games to a physically inferior Boston team that played tougher. Vancouver’s road to the Cup might not have to go back through Boston the way Magic’s Lakers did, but whether it’s St. Louis or Detroit in the West, or Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers in the East, Vancouver is going to have the answer the question about toughness if they want to leave a championship legacy.