Let’s face it, it wasn’t too long ago that things were looking somewhat grim in Vancouver. On November 25th, the Canucks had just finished up an abysmal six-game home stand with only one win and were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture with a pedestrian 12-9-5 record.
However, in the eleven games since then, the Canucks have suffered just one regulation loss. So what’s the reason for the turn-around? I’ve pinpointed three main factors.
Roberto Luongo is Roberto Luongo again.
Let’s face it, the last couple of seasons have been rough on Luongo. From the highs of winning a gold medal, to the lows of losing the Stanley Cup and, ultimately, the starter’s job in Vancouver before surprisingly being thrust back into the role. It’s a long story, and we all know it.
Nobody would have blamed Luongo for sulking through another season before being eventually bought out or moved, however that’s not the approach that Luongo chose to take. Instead, he appears to be, to this observer’s eyes, more focused and playing some of his best hockey since coming to Vancouver or maybe ever.
The numbers don’t lie. Luongo has allowed more than two goals against only twice in his last 13 starts. On the season, he’s sitting with a 2.19 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. Those numbers, should they hold, would represent the second best totals of his career.
More importantly, and often overlooked, is the subtle changes Luongo has made to his style. During the lockout, Luongo focused on keeping his weight over his pads and more upright. This prevents him from reaching too much for pucks in front of him, and eliminates the flopping onto his stomach which plagued him for too many bad goals against in the past.
A mentally and technically strong Luongo does wonders for this Canucks team.
I daresay that the trio of Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli might be the best second line in the NHL at the moment.
In seven games so far this month, Kesler and Higgins have eight points, while Santorelli has seven. Collectively that’s 23 points in just seven games, plus five game-winning goals, which is outstanding production from a second line. All three are on pace for 50 point seasons, and a healthy Kesler seems to be making all the difference.
It used to be that as the Sedin twins went, so did the Canucks. Shut down Daniel and Henrik, and the Canucks were done. That’s no longer the case.
It’s not just the second line stepping up offensively either. Off-season pick-up and third line center Brad Richardson, with 14 points already, is on pace for a career season, as is young power forward Zack Kassian.
Maligned winger David Booth looks to be finally turning his game around during a modest three game point streak and defenseman Jason Garrison has quietly moved into the top 10 for scoring from the blueline with 22 points in 35 games. In fact, four defensemen have hit double digits in points already, including youngsters Christopher Tanev and Ryan Stanton.
They may not be the offensive juggernaut they once were, but solid contributions from all over the lineup have moved the Canucks into 8th in the NHL with 97 goals scored on the season.
Tortorella knows how to push the right buttons.
People were wondering before the season began what effect the hiring of John Tortorella would have on this veteran club. Nearly half-way through the season now, it appears we already have the answer.
Let’s use the game last Saturday against the Bruins as an example. Up 1-0 at the beginning of the second period, but really not playing very good hockey, Boston tied the game. Tortorella, sensing the tide was turning even before that goal was scored, calls a time-out and just absolutely rips his team. The effort wasn’t where it should be and he knew it.
The result? Five unanswered Canucks goals and a dominant 6-2 victory. Tortorella seems to have an innate sense of what his team needs and when they need it. More than that, he’s an excellent judge of when a player is going, when he isn’t, and how to use that to his advantage.
Let’s use the Bruins game as an example again, considering it was nearly a microcosm of the entire Canucks season to this point. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, despite ending up with two points each on the night, were not having a good game. So Tortorella, instead of playing them more and more in an attempt to get them going, cut their ice time.
A strange move to be sure, but a highly calculated one. Firstly, Tortorella knew that the Sedins weren’t going, so he gave other players (most notably the second line) more ice. But it had a deeper effect than that, which led to Tortorella simply outcoaching Claude Julien.
Tortorella knew that every single time the Sedins hopped over the boards, that Zdeno Chara would be there to meet them, so he played around with that match-up. He didn’t give the Sedins shifts when Julien would naturally assume they would (for example, after an icing call). This resulted in Chara going back and forth from the bench multiple times in an attempt to get the right match-up.
The result? Only 22:10 of ice time for Chara (far below his customary 25+ minutes) and free range for Tortorella’s other lines to be out on the ice without Boston’s shutdown pairing matched up against them, knowing full well that the rest of his squad had the ability to produce offense.
Six different Canucks scored goals in that game, from three different lines plus the defense.
That’s not just depth, but sublime game-management from Tortorella.
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