The Canucks have a problem, and it’s not a pool-hall.
What observers will tell you plagues this team is its "softness". That "softness" was on full display last night when Marc Methot recklessly boarded Henrik Sedin, and the Canucks conspicuously failed to present Methot with his just-desserts. Apparently Bieksa and Volpatti both offered Methot an ice-cream cake of whoop-ass, but Methot wouldn’t go, and the Canucks skaters let it go, rather than risk the instigator.
Henrik Sedin hobbled away from the hit, and today is not skating with the team. The incident and the team’s reaction uncovered a sensitive emotional deposit in Canuckistan, and conjured up shades of playoff eliminations past. From Brad Marchand speed-bagging Daniel in June, to Bolland’s happy-hacking on both twins (and Daniel’s ill-considered response) in the Conference Semi-Final the season previous – many believe that it’s open season on the Sedins because the Canucks don’t "fight back" in the schoolyard sense of the term.
Referees can’t, and won’t, sufficiently protect the Sedins; and supplementary discipline might not either. The Canucks power-play, when it’s clicking, can do things like chase a meatball like Ben Eager from the lineup in a playoff series, but is that sufficient insurance? Marc Methot will not be suspended for his hit last night, and that’s not outrageous as far as I’m concerned. What would be outrageous would be the Canucks failing to target #3 when Columbus and Vancouver renew acquaintances later in the season. And some grinder should probably go and cleanly bash Nash and Carter for good measure as well.
For years in Los Angeles, or so the story goes, the Kings had Marty McSorley who was Kevin Costner to Gretzky’s Whitney Houston. He was the body-guard. If you took a run at Gretzky, McSorley would be sure to make you pay. Now McSorley wasn’t a pure goon in the way we think of them now (5 minutes of ice-time per game, sent out for the odd staged fight). In the prime of his career he gave Los Angeles third line production, while racking up the major penalties that helped ensure Gretzky’s on-ice protection. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that believes the Canucks need "a pure goon" to protect the Sedins – but, do I think the team needs a certain institutionalized toughness that refuses to allow a play like Methot’s to go unanswered? Yes, I do.
I’m generally not a proponent of hockey violence. I despise the scrums that follow legal body-checks. I find staged fights grotesque and unnecessary, and I am convinced that employing a "specialized enforcer" on your NHL team takes goals (and wins) off of the table. But there’s a school-yard element to the sport of hockey, and the Canucks need to protect the Sedins more vehemently. If a punk, non-playoff team like Columbus plays the Sedins like they did last night, imagine what the quality goon hockey teams will act like when they face Vancouver.
Opposing team players seem to think it is open season on the twins, possibly because in the cup finals when it happened, the league took no steps to stop it, and the refs turned a blind eye. This may have given other teams a sense of security when laying cheap shots on the twins. If others got away with it, why won’t they. It needs to stop. Our guys can beat up every guy who hurts a Sedin, but then our guys take the risk of sitting in the sinbin and giving the other team the PP and the chance to score.
Indirectly, this snippet raises an interesting point. It’s a maxim for proponents of hockey non-violence that an effective power-play is the best enforcer. But that bludgeon works both ways: the best shield to allow a team to play outside the rules is a disruptive, stingy penalty-killing unit.
In the Finals, Boston’s success against the Canucks while short-handed emboldened them to take liberties with the twins. The Bruins hacked and mauled and punched at will. When it became apparent that the Canucks weren’t "making the Bruins pay" on the power-play, the Canucks "play between the whistles" philosophy was neutered.
Now the party line is that the team didn’t believe that the risk presented by Columbus (0-16 on the PP so far this season) on the man-advantage was worth taking in order to send a message on behalf of the team’s best player, and captain? That’s some weak guff. I’d suggest to you that a quality power-play isn’t enough, sometimes you also need to get medieval, and trust your penalty-kill.
Now when I’m watching a game, and I see a hit like Methot’s on Henrik – my emotional response is to call for vengeance, and in all likelihood that’s not particularly rational. The other side of the coin is articulated by Harrison Mooney in last night’s "I Watched This Game":
There’s going to be plenty of chatter tomorrow about the Canucks’ lack of a “reaction” to Marc Methot hitting Henrik Sedin from behind, especially after a Stanley Cup Final where many feel Vancouver’s failure to stand up for themselves cost them the series. It will be relatively meaningless chatter. Yes, the Canucks need to send a message to the rest of the league, but if they react by losing their composure, the they’re sending the wrong message. I like that they remained composed and stayed focused enough to win the game.
So is this hand-wringing about Vancouver’s toughness "meaningless chatter"? I rarely disagree with Mr. Mooney, but here I do. I can’t shake the feeling that finding the balance between "playing between the whistles, and making the opposition pay on the powerplay," and occasionally taking a Sedin basher out behind the wood-shed, is something the Canucks continue to struggle with.
In 2009-10, the Canucks tried to respond in kind to the Blackhawks, and most believe they "went too far" and it cost them in the conference semi-final. In 2010-11 they tried to play it the other way, and in the cup finals, most seem to believe it cost them. Maybe there’s no over-arching philosophy of retaliatory strategy that is one-hundred percent on point. I’d suggest to you that it’s a delicate balance, and one that requires the use of both gamesmanship and goonsmanship.