Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward/Associated Press
The Canucks, winners of seven of their last ten, are on something of a hot streak down the stretch. Since the trade deadline they’ve won five of six, recorded four "clear victories" over that stretch, shutout an opponent on two occassions and have averaged four goals a game. But angst still reigns in conversations about the team in the Vancouver sports market, in part becasue all of the team’s past six contests have come against non-playoff teams in the Western Conference.
That’ll change on Tuesday evening, as the Canucks roll into St. Louis for the second game of a road back-to-back, to face a very good Blues team. The Blues aren’t the league’s best team on home ice, but their goaltending has begun to regress (in a positive direction) and they’ve won six of their last ten, with three shutouts in their past five. The Blues will have a good deal more to play for on Tuesday night too, they’re only a single point clear of ninth place in the West, but only four points out of home-ice advantage in the first round (with a game in hand too). So they’ve got to mind both the carrot and the stick.
Should be an interesting tilt. We’ll preview it at length past the jump.
Puck Drop: 5 PM PST
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Television: Sportsnet Pacific
As everyone knows by now, Ken Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues play stifling defensive hockey. They give up the second fewest shots against per sixty minutes at even strength among all teams in the league, and they’re a gangbusters possession club too. They’re narrowly better than Vancouver on this front, though I’d mention that they don’t quite have the same type of quality fastball to unleash when they’re in need of a goal.
That’s been apparent lately as the Blues have only managed five goals in their past five contests. Of course, they’ve won three of those past five because, man, is their defence good. It’s also lightning quick now, especially with the deadline additions of Jay Bouwmeester (who is skating with Alex Pietrangelo on the league’s lankiest top-pairing) and Jordan Leopold (who has been partnered most often with Kevin Shattenkirk). St. Louis third pairing of Roman Polak and and Barrett Jackman is, in comparison, somewhat stuck in the mud and I’d imagine Alain Vigneault will look to exploit that with the likes of Ryan Kesler, Derek Roy, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond.
On the other hand, Hitchcock rolls three pretty solid forward lines, so the Canucks will be playing with fire if they leave Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy together on the second line. David Backes’ top group (which has mostly included Canucks killer Alex Steen and David Perron) will presumably do battle with the Sedin line for much of the evening. That’ll obviously be the game’s marquee mathup. Patrik Berglund’s group (his most frequently line-mates recently have been Chris Stewart and Jaden Schwartz) will presumably see a steady diet of Ryan Kesler’s line on Tuesday – a matchup which should narroly favour Vancouver – and that leaves a really nice third-line including Andy MacDonald, and Vladimir’s Sobotka and Tarasenko to pick over Vancouver’s newlook Kassian, Raymond, Ebbett third-line. Something fun to look for today by the way, St. Louis rookie Dmitrij Jaskin will also be making his NHL debut. I’d imagine he’ll be on the fourth line, though he lit up the Q this past season so perhaps he’ll see some spot duty in Hitchcock’s top-nine…
Anyway, with this game taking place in St. Louis, Alain Vigneault will have to work hard to get the twins on the ice against a trio other than the Backes, Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester axis. I’d also imagine he’ll have a tough time sufficiently protecting his under-manned third line (that is, unless the team decides to split up Derek Roy and Ryan Kesler). With Hitchcock and Vigneault behind the respective benches, this one should be a fascinating chess match…
Beyond having pride on the line, Tuesday’s game is a potential first round series preview and I don’t really like how the Canucks matcup with the Blues, frankly. The Blues have a pretty clear edge at five-on-five, on special teams and in terms of the way their forwards matchup with Vancouver’s. The Canucks have the edge in speed, in overall offensive talent, and in goal, which could be enough to win out in seven games, maybe, but a series between these teams would essentially be a coin flip in my view.
As such, it would behoove the Canucks to come out strong on Tuesday, and nip the seventh place Blues – a potentially difficult first round playoff opponent – in the bud. A win for the Canucks tonight would hurt St. Louis’ chances of finishing sixth (which is currently 28% likely according to sportsclubstats.com). The Canucks may have third place in the west and the Northwest Division all but on lock at this point in the season, but that should be all the motivation they need.