30 Thoughts: Canucks discover winning ugly is beautiful thing | Hockey | CBC Sports

Playoffs 201330 Thoughts: Canucks discover winning ugly is beautiful thing

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013 | 09:50 AM

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It hasn't always been pretty, but Henrik Sedin (33) and the Canucks have had plenty of new  reasons to celebrate this season. (Rich Lam/Getty Images) It hasn't always been pretty, but Henrik Sedin (33) and the Canucks have had plenty of new reasons to celebrate this season. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

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Long considered a team with an elegant style, the Vancouver Canucks have adopted a more grinding approach in clinching their fifth consecutive Northwest Division title.

As back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks were the Ermenegildo Zegnas of the NHL. They didn't just win, they did it in a stylish, artistic manner.

No more.

They aren't the St. Louis Blues, but the Canucks' fifth consecutive Northwest Division crown comes with a different identity. They scratched and clawed their way to this title. While the organization believes this is an important metamorphosis that will make the team better in the long-term, fans haven't always enjoyed the grind-it-out approach. When you're used to an elegant style of victory, change can convince people you're not as strong.

That's why the captain called this the most satisfying Northwest triumph.

"It's not good enough for us to just win games," Henrik Sedin said by telephone on Tuesday. "Fans feel it should be 5-1 or 5-2 ... seeing some highlight goals. We have to win in a certain way.

"You look at Detroit, I think people judge them on what they should be instead of what they have ... We are not a run-and-gun team anymore. You've got to be good in your own end. When healthy, I think this is as good a team as we have ever had."

Sedin would love the chance to prove that in May and June. Chris Higgins returned to form a very good line with Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy in Monday's 3-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. That was Vancouver's most impressive victory of the season.

Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said Thursday night that goaltender Cory Schneider will rest until the start of the playoffs. Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev remain blue-line absentees, although Gillis added Bieksa could play Saturday at Edmonton (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 10 p.m. ET). It's hard to see the Canucks fulfilling Sedin's prophecy without contributions from both men.

You can understand the argument that learning to win the hard way will help this group. Alain Vigneault and the coaching staff made two philosophical adjustments that helped. During Vancouver's rise to the top of the NHL, Henrik took the offensive-zone draws, Manny Malhotra was the critical defensive centreman and Kesler a jack-of-all-trades.

The injuries to Kesler and Malhotra opened opportunity for the Sedin twins to add extra responsibility. For the first time in three seasons, less than 70 per cent of their zone starts will be in the offensive end (Credit: behindthenet.ca). Henrik won two key defensive draws against Henrik Zetterberg late in last Saturday's 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

After taking the puck behind his own net and rimming it around the boards in the last seconds of that game, Henrik raced to the blue-line to block a shot. He realized there was no other Canuck in position to get it out and made sure the giveaway wouldn't end up a goal against. It was a great effort.
"Daniel and I have talked about this," Henrik said. "We want to be more than a one-dimensional player. If you are, don't score and the team doesn't win, you're very disappointed. When there's more defensive responsibility, other things you can do to help the team win, you can feel good without scoring."

The second change the coaching staff made was asking forwards to play deeper in the defensive end than before. At their attacking best, the Canucks were known for "blowing the zone," allowing forwards to break for offensive opportunities before the puck was cleared.

That doesn't happen as often. In an effort to defend some of the bigger lines and teams, the Canucks cover the points less in an effort to swarm the opposition down low. That's improved defensive-zone coverage, but makes it harder to score.

It's a major reason why the Canucks stand 16th overall in goals scored, which would be their lowest season-ending position since 2008. Sedin sees it as a fair tradeoff. He likes this team.

"As long as we don't change, continue to play this way and not give up a whole lot, I don't see us losing four out of seven," he said, although quick to add, "as long as we are healthy."

For Vancouver, winning ugly is now a beautiful thing.

1. A tough call for the Canucks on Schneider's "body injury." You can't fault them for wanting him to rest, but it means his Game 1 playoff start will come after seven or eight days of non-action. Not easy.

2. Last Saturday, you could see on video how timid Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators looked with his stride. He didn't trust it yet and is such a smooth skater that it stands out when he's uncomfortable. What a difference five days makes. Texted one NHLer who watched Karlsson's return last night: "He looked great for not having played for two months."

3. As Karlsson prepared to return, Bryan Murray said the two things that concerned him most about his club were things the reigning Norris Trophy winner could fix. "We're not great at breakouts," the Senators GM said. Karlsson will singlehandedly take care of that. Also, the power play entered last night's game at Washington five for its last 50. The Senators went 1-for-5, but the one put them into the playoffs and he assisted on it.

4. One theory about Karlsson's quick comeback is some team doctors will "inflate" the estimated time for recuperation time because they want players to feel the accomplishment of a faster recovery rather than the disappointment of taking longer to get back. Jared Cowen is another Senator who was not supposed to play this year. I bounced that one off Glenn Healy and Kelly Hrudey on Hockey Night In Canada Radio. Both disagreed.

5. As the Winnipeg Jets close their season, I can't help but look at Evander Kane and think, "That guy is a lot more hurt than he and they are letting on."

6. Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien shot down questions about Zdeno Chara needing a break. "It's a lot of BS right now," Julien told reporters. "We have to ... quit hiding behind those excuses." That might be true, but will the team find time to rest Jaromir Jagr? He's one guy they'd probably want to sit before the playoffs.

7. I spoke to Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock last Friday in preparation for our Detroit/Vancouver broadcast. I opened the conversation by saying, "Thanks for making time, know it hasn't been easy..." He stopped me right there. "The one thing you can control is your attitude," he said. Babcock made it very clear that no matter how much the media or fans may be down on Detroit, he doesn't have time for that. "We have a lot of young players with a chance to make the playoffs. We have to be excited about that challenge for them."

8. Babcock's been impressed by what he's seen so far from Danny DeKeyser. "He may not be a big point-getter, but he knows how to go and get [the puck]," Babcock said. "He also knows how to get it to the right person to get us going."

9. Interesting to hear New York Islanders players talk about the reason for their playoff berth. "John Tavares carried us for 25 games while the rest of us figured out what our roles were," said one. "Once that happened, I think we actually made it easier on him. Now everyone understands what is expected of them."

10. When did the Islanders realize they were good enough to make it? "After that terrible week in March," said Travis Hamonic. He's talking about March 19-22. They led Ottawa 3-1 after two periods and lost 5-3. They were tied 2-2 in the second intermission with both the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins and fell 5-2 and 4-2, respectively. "This used to be a very quiet room," said Doug Weight, the man of many titles. "They straightened themselves out, fixed what needed to be fixed." They are 11-2-2 since.

11. So which formerly quiet player now speaks up? Weight thought about it for a few seconds: "Frans Nielsen. He doesn't speak a lot ... but says what needs to be said."

12. Speaking of the Islanders, Toronto's Nazem Kadri is so wired up after games that, when at home, he'll rewatch the entire thing before going to sleep. The Leafs' 5-3 loss to New York? "First game I turned off all year," he said. "Couldn't look at it."

13. Columbus must beat Detroit and/or Minnesota outright to get into the playoffs because its ROW (regulation plus overtime wins) total will be lower than that of the Red Wings and Wild. This is the new No. 1 tiebreaker and one of its foremost champions was former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson. Howson left some gifts in Ohio (Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky), but that's like getting tube socks for Christmas.

14. I heard a great story about Dubinsky. After the trade, he showed up in Columbus to do some summer skating. Apparently, there was a scrimmage where only one NHL-calibre goaltender played. His team had the more inexperienced guy and lost. He demanded a trade, but the other team wouldn't do it, so he stormed off the ice because he hated the losing. Teams need that attitude.

15. Also coming on is Ryan Johansen. "When I was called back up [Feb. 24], I came with the attitude that I belong here, I believe in myself and I just need to play my game," he said following Sunday's 4-3 victory over San Jose. Johansen scored the winner with 1:37 remaining in regulation. What really stood out was how well he played against Joe Thornton. The Sharks changed the matchup in the third, keeping their captain away from him. "He was my favourite player," Johansen said sheepishly.

16. Doug Wilson's deadline tinkering turned San Jose into a faster team and you can see head coach Todd McLellan remodeling things, too. For the first time since 2004, no San Jose forward will average 20 minutes per game. Every forward on the current roster plays at least 10. Thornton, third among forwards at 18:24 per night, is on pace for his lowest total since 1999. 

17. A couple of years ago, when Carey Price was going through a bad stretch, Canadiens goalie coach Pierre Groulx said one of the first things they tried to fix was Price's "lean." When he is too far back on his skates, Price struggles. Just something to keep an eye on.

18. There was some criticism for not pulling Price last Saturday against Washington, three days after Peter Budaj was yanked (and Price inserted) in Pittsburgh. I disagree with that. It is critical for Price to work. There aren't enough off-days, so he needs to "practice" in games. No point in resting him now.

19. Alex Ovechkin is so hot that he's scoring on his backhand. That's been a problem because of his wicked curve. Did Capitals head coach Adam Oates, a notorious tinkerer of players' sticks, ask Ovechkin to change his? "No," was the answer.

20. There is some angst among Calgary fans that the Flames are winning too many games, now that they're up to 24th overall. If you're going to bring up your kids, guys you hope will be contributors in the future, you cannot "tank" around them. You can never allow them to think losing is acceptable.

21. That is also why it was completely crazy for the Tampa Bay Lightning to entertain the slightest notion of trading Martin St. Louis (for the record, I don't believe they did). When you are rebuilding and possess an elite player with great habits and a desire to stay, you hold on for dear life.

22. Oilers GM Craig MacTavish, asked if he sees Taylor Hall as a winger or a centre: "We wanted to try him at centre this season, but aside from some faceoff work when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins struggled, it never materialized ... Terry O'Reilly always used to tell me, 'Position is just a place where you line up when they drop the puck.' Taylor covers a lot of ice from the wing."

23. MacTavish had another good quote: "My vision of the team will be very obvious very quickly." He pointed to Montreal as a team he hoped to emulate. It's tough to make trades right after the season because you can't deal with anyone in the playoffs and those who are out of it prefer to decompress before making important decisions. It's a good thing he was at the under-18s in Russia because this week's been a nightmare.

24. MacTavish did not specifically address Oscar Klefbom, but the sense is the Oilers consider the left-shooting defensive prospect an untouchable. I also think they are realistic about his impact, especially after Justin Schultz's late-season struggles. They believe he can be a top-pairing blue-liner, but maybe not for two years.

25. Finally, Edmonton is going to try and upgrade in goal. Devan Dubnyk's held them in a lot more games than the Oilers deserve, but they don't have much throughout the organization. I wouldn't be surprised to see them chase guys who can help them in both the NHL and AHL.

26. I howled when I read that Randy Carlyle jabbed reporters after the Maple Leafs outshot the Lightning and lost 5-2. I mentioned on last week's show that Toronto's margin of minus-5.6 was the worst to make the playoffs since Montreal in 2002. Some of you asked for the lowest numbers in previous seasons. Here they are for the last five: Nashville Predators in 2012 (-3.2); Anaheim Ducks in 2011 (-3.8); Colorado Avalanche in 2010 (-2.6); Philadelphia Flyers in 2009 (-2.7); Minnesota and Pittsburgh in 2008 (-3.1).

27. In April, Blues goaltender Brian Elliott has one ugly performance -- a 5-3 loss to Colorado last Sunday, when he was yanked after 37 minutes. Around that, he's won eight of nine. In those games, St. Louis scored just 17 goals while Elliott made 200 of a possible 207 saves. The team's suffocating style is obviously a factor, but he is a perfect goalie for that system. The Blues are tough to beat when he is on.

28. It was a marvelous gesture by the Carolina Hurricanes to call up Jared Staal and for head coach Kirk Muller to start all three brothers together. I wonder, though, if the New York Rangers look at this and say, "Do we have only two years left of Marc?"

29. A few teams are trying to sign goalie Michael Condon, who joined AHL Houston after his NCAA career ended at Princeton. Condon is 3-0 with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage for the Aeros. The Wild, Houston's parent club, is one of them. There were points this season where Montreal and Philadelphia checked him out. I suspect there are others, too.

30. I leave you this week with a story from one of our Hockey Night crew: Allan Boye. His nephew, Ethan, recently went to a game where Walter Gretzky was in attendance. A photo was requested and, as usual, Walter was happy to oblige. Walter asked Ethan if he played hockey. Ethan said yes. Walter said his son played hockey, too. Ethan replied, "Was he a good player?"

Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC

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