Previewing the Abbotsford Canucks’ final back-to-back of 2023 against the Calgary Wranglers

Cody Severtson
5 months ago
Ah, the highs and lows of AHL hockey!
One week, the club is riding a four-game losing streak, dropping three straight to a division rival before getting shut out for the first time in the season. The next, they’re riding high, picking up a shutout while outscoring their Pacific Division rivals 17 to 4 over a three-game win streak.
The turnaround coincided with the addition of Nick Cicek to the blueline. Since joining the club from the San Jose Barracuda, Cicek has stabilized the d-core of Abbotsford. The experienced (relative to most of the club’s blueliners) has absorbed most of the minutes that Matt Irwin and Christian Wolanin were tasked with eating in the absences of Filip Johansson and Akito Hirose. Since trading Jack Studnicka for Cicek, the club has outscored their opposition 12 to 3 at 5-on-5 while conceding just a single goal on the penalty kill across 11 power play opportunities.
The stabilized Canucks return from their holiday break with a doubleheader on the road against the Calgary Wranglers that will put a bow on the 2023 half of their season.
Before we preview the series, let’s see how last week’s predictions went.
Week 11 predictions review
I’m in the festive spirit, so I’m picking Abbotsford to win both games at home.
Too positive?
I don’t care.
The festive spirit paid off! The Ontario Reign, despite their place above Abbotsford in the standings (at the time), proved to be no match for the Canucks.
Over the two-game back-to-back, the Canucks outscored the Reign 11 to 2, with Reign head coach Marco Sturm making the questionable decision to start netminder Erik Portillo in both games, even after getting shelled 43 to 24 in shots in the first game.
Game two saw a similar output in shot volume from Abbotsford, with the Canucks getting goals from five different goalscorers on 27 shots in the first 30 minutes of the game, chasing Portillo and bringing in relief netminder Jacob Ingham. The Canucks did not relent over the final half of the game, either. Ingham faced 15 shots over 32 minutes, conceding a goal from John Stevens less than three minutes after Portillo was pulled.
Let’s see where the players and team sit following their week 11 dominance.
Team Stats
League Stats
The shoot-first mentality against the Reign saw a marked improvement to the teams shot-rate differential. Previously, the Canucks were conceding more shots per game than they were generating. The back-to-back 40+ shots against the Reign improved their differential into the positives (outshooting opponents on an average of +1.9 shots per game).
The Canucks shot rate of 11.8% sits fourth-best in the AHL. Toronto, Texas, and last year’s Calder winners, Hershey, sit with higher shooting percentages.
After a rough stretch against the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Canucks’ goalie tandem of Silovs and Tolopilo took a bump down the goalie platoon save percentage charts, sitting 8th-best in the league with a .908 save percentage. Their upcoming opponents, Calgary, sit with the league’s best goalie platoon rocking a .922 save percentage.
Division Standings
Scoring Leaders
The AHL has a vendetta against Aatu Räty. The Finnish forward had the last touch on Cicek’s first goal as an Abbotsford Canuck, yet the AHL credits Chase Wouters with the primary assist.
The lack of proper credit shouldn’t matter all that much for Räty. With the assist on Cicek’s goal, Räty leapt Sheldon Dries, Linus Karlsson, and Arshdeep Bains for pole position as the club leader in 5v5 points.
Tristen Nielsen scored a highlight-reel goal against Portillo during the 6-0 rout and picked up a primary assist on Sheldon Dries’ goal against Ingham to pad his 5v5 points column. Through his 15 games, Nielsen has 10 points at 5-on-5, leading the club with the best production rate at 5-on-5 by a wide margin.
After a quiet start to his AHL season preceding his two-week stint on IR, Cole McWard returned with a vengeance, scoring four points (all at 5-on-5) in his first four games back in the lineup. In his brief return, Abbotsford has outscored their opposition 5 to 1 with McWard on the ice at 5-on-5.
Similarly, Max Sasson returned to the lineup after missing seven games with a concussion. In his two games back, Sasson has two goals and an assist while featuring on-ice for three goals for and none against at 5-on-5.
Since returning to the AHL from his cup of coffee in Vancouver, Linus Karlsson has four goals and four assists, with half his points coming at 5-on-5. With Karlsson on the ice in his six games back, the Canucks have outscored their opposition 6-nothing at 5-on-5.
With their positive contributions at 5-on-5, Sasson, McWard, and Karlsson sit atop the on-ice goal differential leaderboards with plus-9 and plus-8 goal differentials, respectively.
Injury Report
Games #27 & 28 @ Calgary Wranglers
It took 19 games, including four in the 2022-23 Calder Cup Playoffs, but the Abbotsford Canucks finally chased a goalie out of the Calgary Wranglers’ pipes.
The last time these two clubs met, the Abbotsford Canucks punished head coach Trent Cull for pulling a Marco Sturm and giving Dustin Wolf back-to-back starts despite facing 40+ shots in the first leg of the series. The 7-2 victory over the Wranglers finished an impeccable November run which saw the club go 6-2-0-0 over eight games. The impressive aspect of the clubs biggest win over the Wranglers in franchise history was that they did it without the services of Arshdeep Bains (injury), Cole McWard (call-up), Christian Wolanin (injury), and Akito Hirose (call-up).
That the ramshackle d-core tied their club’s season record for most goals-for in a game against a team that’s given them so much trouble over two seasons is nothing short of impressive.
Yes, the head-to-head isn’t pretty, but with the d-core stabilizing, and the forward group hitting their stride at even strength, there’s reason to believe this set of games will be a pick’em.
Amazingly, despite their place atop the Pacific Division, the Wranglers’ power play sits 16th in the AHL (as mid as it gets), while their penalty kill ranks below Abbotsfords. The Canucks lack of experience hasn’t impacted their ability to defend against elite power plays. Through 26 games played, the Canucks have been shorthanded the 12th-most times, but have killed 86% of all power play opportunities. Playing with fire? A little bit! But, that propensity to take penalties hasn’t hurt them too much thus far.
The Wranglers are a club that leans heavily on its goaltending to survive. Without the services of Dustin Wolf, the Wranglers went 1-2-1, splitting a regulation win and an overtime loss before back-to-back losses against league bottomfeeders Manitoba and San Jose. The Wranglers lost in Wolfs return, 4-2 to the Bakersfield Condors, but righted the ship with back-to-back victories over the Colorado Eagles.
Again, this series to close 2023 might be way closer than the head-to-head record would indicate.
Week 12 Predictions 
I’m staying positive here, but with a flair for realism. I’m picking Abbotsford to lose in overtime or the shootout in game one, but win in regulation in the second leg of the back-to-back.
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