Game #67 Preview: Hello Old Friends

Thomas Drance
March 03 2012 10:32AM

 

Less than a week ago, Mike Gillis altered the franchise's immediate and long-term trajectory by dealing a rookie heralded as the second coming of Linden, and sending him to Buffalo. Yes, a week ago today Cody Hodgson was a member of the Vancouver Canucks (though he'd just had a meeting with the coach, and indirectly forced the team's hand over three minutes of ice-time per game). Today: he returns to Vancouver to face the Canucks as a member of the Sabres, a hockey team that represents inarguably the crappiest, loser town in North America. 

There are Canucks fans who fell so deeply and irrationally in love with Cody Hodgson's shooting percentage and youthful charm, that they'll be rooting for the rookie to play well in Vancouver tonight. I'm not one of those Canucks fans. I for one, hope Vigneault has money on the board tonight: half of it for the team keeping Hodgson off the scoresheet, and the other half for targeting him physically every chance they get. 

A more thorough preview, the three keys to the game and underlying numbers after the jump!

I'd give Ehrhoff an ovation if I was in attendance today: he was a rock for the Canucks on their run to the Cup Finals and played hurt in the series against the Bruins. That sort of warrior stuff should earn you a hearty round of applause when you return to face your old team, especially because you are well within your rights as a player to maximize your income as a free agent.

Hodgson on the other hand, basically asked for a trade away from a contender over ice-time. If he was a European or Russian skater he'd be getting absolutely toasted by fans and the press. But instead he's a good Canadian boy, so, it's Vigneault's fault for comments he made about Hodgson's back injury 3 years ago. Ridiculous.

Look, I rooted for Cody Hodgson and Christian Ehrhoff while they were Canucks, and continue to think they're talented offensive players. But now I'm going to root against them, and not just tonight, but forever. Why? Because they prioritized individual goals (ice-time, forty million dollars) over the goals of the team I root for (winning it all). It's not like they're bad people and I don't "hate" them or anything, I just hope they lose tonight, and I hope the Sabres - weighed down by inexcusably bad contract work - miss the playoffs for the next half decade. That's fair, right?

Anyway, the Sabres are a middling team for the most part, but they're on a nice run since the trade deadline, led by goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller has been on fire, making 82 stops on 82 shots this week in two shutout wins over the Ducks and Sharks. Tonight he'll look to continue his run of dominance in the same arena where he earned the nickname: The Millercle. 

That's the other fun subplot tonight: Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo haven't faced each other from across the rink since the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics. That was almost two years ago, and we all know how it ended - with Sidney Crosby yelling "Iggy, Iggy, Iggy!" and beating Miller low to secure the biggest win for Canadian hockey in a generation. If you're reading this and attending the game tonight, my chant suggestions to you are: "Twennnty - Tennnn!" and "HOWS YOUR SILVER *clap* *clap* *clap-clap-clap*".

For the Canucks tonight, the challenge will be containing Buffalo's speed and beating Ryan Miller. The Sabres are a pretty atrocious possession team, but they have several players who can burn you against the flow of play (Cody Hodgson being one of them). The stand out "worrisome" player for me is Tyler Ennis, who is as good as anyone in the league is at skating around slower defenseman. He could cause fits for the likes of Aaron Rome and Sami Salo.

Ennis also has sweet hands, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him go cross crease on Luongo, and flip one over him when Bobby-Luu falls on his belly at some point this evening. Ennis isn't a great possession player, and my observation is that he doesn't quite know how to use his teammates that well yet, but in terms of his speed and individual skill: he's definitely the guy to watch out for on the Sabres.

Numbers Game 

This table includes what we believe to be the best "predictive" team metrics in hockey. Beyond the self-explanatory stats like record, powerplay percentage and goal differential, this table includes: 5-on-5 Goals For and Against Rate, which measures a team's even-strength goal differential on a per game basis. Shot% and Fenwick% are indicators of possession and show us which team is better at controlling play. Shot% and Fenwick% in a tied game state have been proven to be the gold standard for measuring "real" team quality. We'll also include PDO to qualify a team's record - and try to isolate whether or not a particular opponent (or the Canucks) are actually as good as their record indicates, or whether or not they've just been lucky (or unlucky).

  Canucks Sabres
Record 41-16-8 29-27-8
Venue Record (Home/Away) 19-6-4 13-16-1
Last 10 7-1-2 5-3-2
PP% 21.4% 15.9%
PK% 86.7% 80.9%
Goal Differential +50 -23
5-on-5 Goals F/A 1.22 0.97
Shots % 50.1% 48.1%
Fenwick % 51.3% 47.5%
Shots Tied % 49.4% 47.2%
Fenwick Tied % 51.3% 46.5%
PDO 101.7 100.1

Game Notes

The Canucks know better than to mess with success and will go with the exact same lineup that they used on Thursday against St. Louis. That means this blog's favorite player - Chris Tanev - will eat triple o's in the press box for a second straight game.

The Three Keys

  1. Play the man. The Sabres are, I don't want to say soft (it's too pejorative) but they're not the league's biggest team. They traded away Kassian and Gaustad at the deadline, so there's just not a lot of beef left on their roster. The Canucks are the sort of team that can beat their opponents in a number of ways, and against the Sabres they should use their overall team size and muscle to their advantage. Considering how anemic Buffalo's special teams are, the Canucks might be best served playing right on the edge tonight, since they can probably get away it.
  2. Get in Miller's grill. It's no secret that Ryan Miller hasn't had his best season, but he's still one of the best goaltenders on the planet. Of course, his glove can't save what his eyes can't see, so getting traffic at the net and blocking his view is essential. The Canucks, and especially the second line, usually make a game plan of getting traffic at the net and setting up point shots anyways, so all I'd like to see them do is double down on that approach.
  3. Control the puck, control the game. There's just no way around it: the Sabres are a bad possession team. That said, they've got a fair bit of individual skill on the roster with guys like Derek Roy, Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Jason Pominville and Hodgson. They've also got one of the leagues elite snipers in Thomas Vanek. The Canucks are a skilled team too, but if they play run-and-gun tonight they're feeding into Buffalo's hands. I'd much prefer to see the Canucks play a suffocating puck-control game, build a lead and then deploy the trap for thirty minutes or so. What can I say, I'm in the mood for some vintage Alain Vigneault tonight.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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