Game #68 Preview: Night of the Zombie Thrashers

Thomas Drance
March 08 2012 10:27AM

Over the summer, the rotting corpse of the Winnipeg Jets was reanimated, and crawled from its tomb in horror film fashion - finally sticking its creepy, decomposed hand out from the dirt in early September. The spirit of the Jets is alive again (it simply had to occupy the former body of the Atlanta Thrashers) and currently is holding down a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

For what feelsl ike months the Canucks have played games that barely matter to them, against teams clawing desperately to punch their ticket to the postseason dance, and tonight will be no exception. Will Vancouver's team end their run of mediocrity, or will they lose their third straight at home?

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

Broadcast Info:

Game time: 7PM PST

Radio: The Team 1040. Television: Rogers Sportsnet Pacific

The Setup

The Canucks have been in a funk of late. In their past six games they've blown third period leads (something this team has never done historically), and they've lost two in a row in regulation for the first time since November. The Sedins aren't scoring, the breakout is a mess and the secondary scoring has dried up as well. Needless to say, Team 1040 callers are very, very concerned about the 2nd place team in the Western Conference.

In an attempt to solve some of the team's woes, there will be some line-up changes this evening, most of which I'm pretty excited about. Chris Tanev draws back into the line-up and will play alongside newly acquired Marc-Andre Gragnani on the third pairing. Marc-Andre Gragnani, of course, is that guy who has been the lucky beneficiary of Vigneault's affirmative action program and general prejudice according to a respected Vancouver sports reporter... *sigh*

The forward lines have also been scrambled somewhat, Vigneault has decided to reunite the Amex line of Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler and David Booth. This trio combines the three best two-way players on the Canucks, and they'll be expected to dominate at even-strength. It looks like Zack Kassian may draw out of the line-up seeing as how the team is playing against Dale Weise's hometown Winnipeg Jets, tonight - while the embattled Mason Raymond joins Sammy Pahlsson and Jannik Hansen on an intriguing checking line.

Overall the Jets are a pretty solid possession team, with a solid power-play conversion rate. On the road, however, their game changes pretty substantially. The Winnipeg crowds have been raucous, and have clearly buoyed their otherwise mediocre home-team so far this season.

It's just fact: the Jets are not a very dangerous team away from the friendly confines of the MTS Centre. Their power-play percentage is the best figure to illustrate this: they have the league's best power-play at home (clicking at nearly 25%) and the league's worst on the road (clicking at less than 13%). Possession-wise, they've controlled over 50% of events at home with the score tied, and well under 48% on the road with the score tied. When you take the boys out of Winnipeg, they look like the Thrashers and they play like the Thrashers.

Former Manitoba Moose headcoach (and Canucks employee) Claude Noel has done an excellent job with his side. One thing to look for tonight is that he matches lines based on situation and not based on a particular matchup, which, is very similar to the radical deployment strategies Alain Vigneault also favours. Expect the Jets line of Alexander Burmistov, local dude and former Vancouver Giant Evander Kane and former Canuck Kyle Wellwood to get the bulk of offensive zone starts in the Canucks end tonight. On defense, the Jets use Chris Thorburn, Jim Slater (nice to see him have a productive comeback year after missing most of last season with concussion issues), and Tanner Glass - and they'll be in tough tonight trying to shutdown the slumping Sedins.

Beyond Evander Kane's homecoming, and the presence of former Canucks Kyle Wellwood and Tanner Glass - the Jets are captained by the "coward" Andrew Ladd, and their number one defenseman is a guy you may remember named Dustin Byfuglien. These two were excellent players during the first two Canucks-Blackhawks series, and were thorns in the side of Canucks fans for years. Andrew Ladd can still sucker punch Ryan Kesler if he feels like it, so I'm more worried about Dustin Byfuglien. If he flubs a breakaway, looks for a goalie to cross-check and sees  Cory Schneider instead of Luongo - will he get sad? I expect he will.

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 Jets
Record 41-18-8 32-27-8
Venue Record (Home/Away) 19-8-4 11-17-4
Last 10 5-3-2 6-2-2
PP% 20.8% 19.6%
PK% 86.6% 80.7%
Goal Differential +45 -11
5-on-5 Goals F/A 1.19 0.98
Shots % 50.2% 51.1%
Fenwick % 51.3% 51.2%
Shots Tied % 49.5% 50.1%
Fenwick Tied % 51.2% 50.3%
PDO 101.5 99.8

Game Notes

Schneider gets the start, Aaron Rome and (probably) Zack Kassian will head to the press box to be replaced by Chris Tanev and Dale Weise.

Grant Clitsome, the man with the endlessly amusing last name, will play his second game with the Jets after being claimed on waivers last week. Andrej Pavelec gets the start for the Jets, and Zach Bogosian is out with an injury and will miss this contest. His absence, and the recent trade of Johnny Oduya, means that the Jets defense is going to be awfully immobile this evening. 

The Three Keys

  1. The first line. The Sedin twins have got to get going, and tonight, against a middling Eastern Conference team that plays poorly on the road, is a good opportunity to break the slump. The Jets defense is an adventure: Byfuglien sucks in his own end, while Randy Jones, Clitsome and Mark Stuart are as slow as molasses. The twins should have some space tonight to generate scoring chances. If they can have a big game tonight, the Jets won't have a chance.

  2. Crisp, clean, breakout passes. The Canucks have struggled to diffuse the opposition's fore-check in the last two home losses against the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabres. Vancouver's offensive model is built on getting the puck out of their end quickly, and challenging teams with their overall north-south speed. Obviously, that's harder to do when you've got Aaron Rome in the lineup over the likes of Chris Tanev and the injured Keith Ballard. With Tanev drawing back into the lineup, and pairing with Marc-Andre Gragnani - look for the team to attack the Jets with their usually dangerous (though recently dormant) breakout.

  3. Contain the big line. The Jets most dangerous line is their trio of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Wheeler and Ladd especially are big boys, and that line can wear down your defense, screen the living hell of your goalie and hurt you if you're not careful. I expect they'll spend a fair bit of time against the Amex line, which, should be an entertaining matchup. Booth, Kesler, HIggins, Little, Ladd and Wheeler are all big, physical players with skill and speed. It should be a fun matchup to watch, and I'd wager that whichever line wins that micro-battle will emerge the victor this evening.

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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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