Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports
Hit the Road,
Jack Jake. And Jared. And Daniel and Henrik and everyone else.
The team charter has touched down in Buffalo. Over the next 12 days, the Canucks will play seven games in seven cities in two countries and two time zones on their longest road trip of the season.
The Canucks were road warriors last year, finishing the year ranked fifth in the NHL with a 24-14-3 record away from home. They’ve started just as strongly this year, earning nine of 10 possible points and with Boston’s loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, are the only team in the league that have yet to record a loss on the road.
Here are five things to watch for while the Canucks roll through the Eastern U.S. before winding back towards home via Canada.
1. Ryan Miller’s Homecoming and Will He Play Back-to-Back?
For the first time in his career, goaltender Ryan Miller will be suiting up for the opposition in Buffalo when the Canucks kick off the trip with an early game at the First Niagara Center on Saturday. Take note of the 10 a.m. PT start time if you want to see what kind of reception Sabres Nation gives to the goaltender that played 540 games for the team over 11 years, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2010.
Miller did face the Sabres in Vancouver last season, earning a 5-2 win on January 30th, but he missed the Canucks’ visit to Buffalo a month later because of his knee injury four days earlier.
Miller’s trade to the St. Louis Blues on March 1, 2014 was a seminal moment in the Sabres’ rebuild – and reportedly caused the end of the partnership between Pat LaFontaine and Tim Murray. It’s early yet, but the team’s huge personnel overhaul during the summer appears to be paying quick dividends. Buffalo is 5-5-0 in its last 10 games.
After seeing the Sabres on Saturday, the Canucks move on to New Jersey for another afternoon game on Sunday (start time 2 p.m. PT). Miller will almost certainly get the sentimental start on Saturday and could be tapped again to face the Devils, but don’t discount the possibility of Richard Bachman making his second start for the Canucks.
Jacob Markstrom is close to returning from his hamstring injury, but is making the 200-mile trip from Buffalo to Utica this weekend to put in a couple of conditioning games with the Comets before settling into his intended role as Miller’s backup for the year.
2. Tangling with Torts
After the Canucks finish up with the Sabres and Devils, it’s off to Columbus on Tuesday for a game that got a whole lot more interesting for Vancouver when the Blue Jackets tapped John Tortorella as their new coach on October 21, after their 0-7-0 start.
The Jackets are 4-3-0 in seven games under Tortorella and will be returning home from a California road trip before they face Vancouver.
How will Torts react to facing the team where his coaching reputation imploded? How will Willie Desjardins strategize against the man he replaced?
Just nine players from the Tortorella era remain on the Canucks roster: the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Chris Tanev and Yannick Weber.
3. The Kids in Canada
The last four games of the road trip will be the first in Eastern Canada for rookies Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Ben Hutton, with stops in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.
The Canucks rookies will likely receive plenty of media attention and get ticket requests from friends and family as they travel through these hockey-mad markets for the first time.
McCann hails from Stratford, Ontario, about two hours southeast of Toronto. Hutton’s hometown is Brockville, which is about an hour south of Ottawa. Also, 20-year-old Bo Horvat of Rodney, Ontario will be making just his second spin through Central Canada. Expect all three to get lavish treatment from Hockey Night in Canada when the Canucks face the Leafs on November 14.
4. Who’s in the Press Box?
Chris Higgins returned to the Canucks lineup for his first game of the regular season against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, but his impact was limited in what was arguably the Canucks’ flattest effort of the season. Still, given coach Willie Desjardins’ predisposition to lean on his veterans, I don’t expect to see Higgins out of the lineup anytime soon.
Brendan Gaunce and Alex Biega were both re-assigned to Utica on Friday. Brandon Prust and Luca Sbisa are injured. That means the Canucks are carrying just one extra player on the road trip.
Willie expressed some remorse about pulling Baertschi from the lineup to make room for Higgins.
“That’s a hard choice,” Desjardins told Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun when he announced his lineup after Wednesday’s morning skate. “I thought that was one of (Baertschi’s) better games this year.”
If Desjardins elects to shake things up after a loss by putting Baertschi back into the lineup this weekend, who comes out? Adam Cracknell seems like he might be the most likely suspect, though his toughness is an asset while Prust is sidelined and the Canucks have been using him to protect McCann in the faceoff circle.
5. Is There a Solution for 3-on-3?
The Canucks are off to a better start than many people expected this season, but they’ve shown two glaring weaknesses that have cost them points in the standings.
First: they’re a troubling 5-1-3 when leading after two periods—an uncharacteristic number of late collapses for a team that went 30-1-3 under the same circumstances last year.
Also troubling: Vancouver’s record when the game goes beyond 60 minutes. Last season, the Canucks were tied after three periods on 17 occasions according to Sporting Charts—just over 20 percent of the time. Of those 17 games, Vancouver won 12 with six OT wins and six wins in the shootout balanced against three overtime losses and two shootout defeats.
The Canucks made the playoffs last year with a six-point cushion over the Los Angeles Kings, a team that also happened to win just three of 18 games that went to overtime or a shootout. That single stat can be seen as the difference between Vancouver’s success and L.A.’s failure in 2014-15.
So far this season, the Canucks have gone to extra time in five of their 13 games—a higher frequency than last year, now 38 percent of the time. So far, the Canucks are 1-4. They won their only shootout against Anaheim but have yet to score in five attempts at 3-on-3 overtime and have given up the winning goal four times.
The Canucks did spend some time working on 3-on-3 before heading out on the road trip.
#Canucks working on 3-on-3.
22-33-23 vs 53-36-6 to start.
Then 21-14-27 vs 17-91-2
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) November 3, 2015
I’d like to see Willie let some of the kids use their speed and skill to try to pick up a quick win rather than leaning so heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Edler combo. Youthful energy just might be the ticket for overtime success.
Failing that, regulation wins are also an excellent solution. If the situation doesn’t favour the team, why not simply avoid it wherever possible?