The Vancouver Canucks are set to kickoff the longest road trip of their season: a seven game East coast swing that start on Friday afternoon against the perpetually banged up Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets are somewhat healthier than they were a month ago, but are still without key pieces like Brandon Dubinsky, Fedor Tyutin and Ryan Murray.
After emerging as a tough, physical, defensive club that controlled play very well last season, the Blue Jackets are back to being Sergei Bobrovsky and company this year. Partly as a result of injuries, the Blue Jackets are a bottom-10 puck possession team that has been widely outscored at five-on-five so far this season. That doesn’t mean Vancouver can look past this club though, after all, Bobrovsky is still an elite puck stopper and the Blue Jackets power play is extraordinarily dangerous.
Read on past the jump (jump jump jump jump jump) for a full preview.
Puck Drop: 4:00 PM PST
TV: Sportsnet Pacific
Radio: TSN 1040
Ryan Miller will get the start for the Canucks, while Sergei Bobrovsky will be between the pipes for the Blue Jackets.
Generally speaking the Blue Jackets are the type of team that the Canucks matchup pretty well with. The Blue Jackets don’t really have the forward speed or offensive weaponry to turn this game into the type of track meet that has occasionally exposed Vancouver’s back-end this season, in fact, they have limited even-strength offensive pop of any sort.
So far only two NHL teams have scored fewer five-on-five goals than the Blue Jackets have – Florida and Buffalo. Some of that is bad shooting luck, but without Nathan Horton – whose career, sadly, may be over – the Blue Jackets don’t exactly employ a guy who drives percentages.
Because they can’t really score at evens, the Blue Jackets are massively reliant on their power-play – which is currently fifth in the NHL in conversion rate. Columbus’ power-play success isn’t a mirage, they’re a top-10 team in five-on-four shot rate and Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno have been two of the NHL’s 10 most efficient point producers in five-on-four situations this season.
The Blue Jackets seem to play a pretty standard 1-3-1 when they’re set up in-zone, though there’s some modification to it with both Foligno and Scott Hartnell dropping low on occasion when Ryan Johansen is handling the puck along right-side half wall (where, it’s worth mentioning, he’s not as serious a shooting threat). I’ve noticed that the Blue Jackets complete a tonne of no-look backhand passes when they’re set up, which are very effective at creating confusion especially against more aggressive penalty killing teams (i.e. a team just like the Canucks). Vancouver’s penalty-killers will have to be focussed and wary of that on Friday night.
Where the Blue Jackets power-play really excels is through the neutral zone, where they’ve really adopted some of the best elements of the Newell Brown-style drop pass. On the first unit Jack Johnson often initiates, with James Wisniewski generally joining the rush (although more as a potential “out” for Johnson than as an active carry-in threat).
It’s funny because though Wisniewski is closer to the opposing blue-line in Columbus’ entry sets, he’s less dangerous than the two forwards who are often well behind the point men. It’s legitimately not uncommon for the Blue Jackets to have two forwards coming up with speed well behind their two D at five-on-four, which leaves Columbus with an awful lot of options. From what I’ve seen of them this season, they’ve often managed to flay teams with these entry sets, and once they get set up, it’s pretty tough to disrupt the cycle when the puck is attached to big bodies like Foligno, Hartnell and Johansen down low.
Vancouver’s penalty killing has been super elite this season (even better than their results, which are good enough for sixth in the NHL so far). Still, this is a huge test. If Vancouver can get the job done at four-on-five, I tend to think they’ll come out ahead on Friday.
With Zack Kassian hurt though, the Canucks’ bottom-six could be something of a mess – though luckily Columbus’ is too so it’s kind of a wash. Linden Vey will draw back into the lineup on Friday and he’ll play with the first power-play unit.
As much as I’ve sung the praises of Columbus’ power-play, their penalty-kill is one of the worst of the league. They’re bottom five in shot prevention and bottom five in actual kill rate, so perhaps Vey can re-ingratiate himself with Canucks fans, coaches and management with a fine showing Friday night.
The Sedins are probably relieved that Tyutin – whose brought clutch and grab back more effectively than Justin Timberlake ever did with sexy – is out of the lineup on Friday night. With Dubinsky and Tyutin out, the Sedins should receive roughly eight fewer cross-checks in the back each over the course of this game.
Ultimately this one is likely to come down to whether or not Vancouver can control play while also maintaining their discipline and limiting the Blue Jackets’ chances on the power-play. If they can do that, they should be able to take advantage of the Blue Jackets’ woeful penalty killing and start a lengthy road trip off on a winning note.