Halfway home gentlemen. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
If the season goal was to simply escape the second round for the first time since apartheid ended, then roll the banner out because mission accomplished.
But we know getting this far was only the first part: a chance to shake some perennial bad habits, slay some demons and get in a position to make this a legitimate post season and not another "maybe next year" coin toss before a long summer.
Regardless if our next opponent shows up in a humbled teal or a confident winged wheel (hey that rhymes), Vancouver needs to earn four wins. If the first 13 games are any indication, then there is plenty to love, some nagging things to hate and more than a few aspects of their game that - should they trend in the right direction - will make all the difference in what this season truly is.
The Dizzying Euphoria
The New First Line - The Sedins worst enemy could be right down the bench as RK17 took this team over with 11 points in the second round (if you haven't yet, please do see Cam's piece). He's playing at a level none of us have seen and is making Bobby Clarke look like a genius (ok, that's a negative). Second in ES, PK and PP TOI he's all over the ice, leading the team in takeaways (16), tied for the lead in PPG (3), second best FO% (54.6%), second most in shots (47), fourth in hits (42), fifth in blocks (12) and number one in our hearts. It won't be easy for him to continue at this pace: teams certainly will treat him like a 1LC and chances are he'll be given more defensive duties against a Datsyuk or Clowe line which should hamper his production (a thesis that the media is already running with). Not to be lost in the shuffle is that both Raymond and Higgins are eating huge minutes on special teams and have scored clutch goals too. Higgins will be aiming for his third game one GWG on Sunday and has been one of the most important deadline acquisitions in years.
Hamhuis/Bieksa - After being spoiled with blue chippers in Jovocop, Ohlund (how good must he be feeling down in Tampa?) and Mitchell, who knew it would be the new guy along with someone must of us wouldn't trust taking the garbage to the curb last year that have become the linchpin of the entire defense? Not taking anything away from Edler's game, Ehrhoff's offense, Salo's perseverance, Rome's steadiness and whatever you want to make of the Ballard saga, it's the Juicy Hammer that makes or breaks this team. The pairing leads in both PK and ES TOI; Bieksa leads the defense in hits (45) and takeaways (7); Hamhuis is second in blocks (25). They're not perfect (see the bottom of the post) but the overall comfort level is there to know they can get the job done no matter what the opposition throws at them.
Special Teams - You could argue this shouldn't be a positive since they're no where near the regular season rates and 3 SHGA is the worst for all playoff teams. Then again, of the teams remaining, only Tampa and Detroit have higher-ranked PPs. Vancouver cashed in on four PPGs against the Predators, including the game three OT winner. With an active defense, strong passing and the first unit threat of Kesler Sedinery, it will remain one of their best weapons. Their PK is even better: at 86%, it's ranked fifth but trails only Tampa among teams still alive. Think back to that OT PK against Chicago in game seven or the 5-on-3 against Nashville in game four, we saw pure skill by the PK'ers (Kesler, Burrows, Raymond, Hansen, Bieksa and Hamhuis) to give the opposition nothing to work with. This is another key change from last year: if you're going to parade to the box, you better have the PK to back it up. So far, so good.
Maxim Lapierre - Along with Higgins, Lappy is another huge deadline addition. We shouldn't be jumping up and down about a fourth liner, especially one who leads the team with 30 PIMs - far more than he accumulated in all his post season experience prior to Vancouver - but most of those minutes came from his two misconducts (tying him with Carcillo for the most misconducts this post season). His pros outweigh the cons: at an average of 13:22 TOI per game, he's well over double what Rypien or Johnson were providing during last year's playoffs. Unlike Rypien though he's living in the DZ and has a better Corsi QoC than last year's 4LC. He's been the best center from the dot, adds some help on the PK and like you'd expect from a bigger fourth liner, leads the team in hits. Lapierre is exactly the type of multidimensional plugger Vancouver didn't have last year and the contrast between the faith AV has in his fourth line between then and now is stark.
The Bothersome Exasperation
Henrik Sedin - Here's a look at some even strength stats for Henrik Sedin for the past three playoff runs.
|Goals||Assists||TOI||S%||FO%||Corsi Rel QoC||OZ%||GFON/60||GAON/60|
As a refresher, Corsi covers all the shots (missed shots and blocked shots) directed for and against while a player is on the ice at even strength. Corsi Relative is the difference in a player's Corsi rating (the balance of shots for/against) when a player is on the ice compared to when he's off. The final step is Corsi Relative QoC which measures the quality of competition (QoC) a player faced based on the relative Corsi of his opponent (the higher the number, the better the opponent). If you're curious why anyone bothers with this stuff, it's because Corsi stats correlate well with scoring chances and Corsi Rel QoC gauges which players are facing the best of the opposition.
OZ% is the frequency a player starts in the offensive zone instead of the neutral or defensive zones. There is a huge value to a high OZ% since it increases the odds to get pucks on net. If your player has a low OZ%, it indicates he is doing the heavy defensive duties against the opponent (this is where Malhotra lived all season and one of the big reasons he is missed). Lastly, GF0N/60 is a measure of the goals while that player is on the ice for sixty minutes of play and GAON/60 is the goals against per sixty minutes.
Hank's FO%, S%, OZ% and the GF/GA jump out the most. As he did in the regular season, AV is giving ample OZ starts to the twins but it's hindered by an almost 11% decrease in FO% and a shooting percentage that is far off his 13.8% post season average. Historically the GF/GA are both trending in the wrong direction. Moving away from the numbers and giving it the old eyeball test, Hank's strides seem off. He doesn't seem to accelerate as quickly as we're used to seeing and there were more than a handful of battles along the board with Nashville where he seemed to flatly give up the puck.
If he's injured, that explains some of these poor marks. If he isn't, then you can shift the blame around to his teammates or the fact he's been dealing with Keith/Seabrook or Suter/Weber for weeks now, but the doesn't explain the losing battles nor should that excuse be accepted. They routinely see the best of the opposition and have the NHL hardware to prove they can succeed. Or maybe you don't care about one player's struggles since the team is winning anyway.
There's optimism that a few days rest is what's necessary, but unless Hank picks up his play away from the scoresheet or decides to kickstart that S% with those advantageous zone starts, it'll remain a substantial problem.
The penalties - At 13.7 penalty minutes a game, Vancouver is the most penalized of the remaining teams. Juice and Hoff are the most frequent offenders (tagged twice each for roughing) followed by Lapierre, Hank and Torres. Dank has also been called twice for hooking, Lapierre twice for interference and of course Keith Ballard with the only mysterious clipping call in the playoffs. As stated above with special teams, the good part is the PK usually bails them out. But we shouldn't be gifting the opposition chances when you're within eight wins of the ultimate prize.
The Curious Betwixt & Between
Luongo - Before you loop the noose around my neck, understand I'm not saying Luongo is bad (his .917 SV% and 2.25 GAA are already better than the last two post seasons and he'll be aiming for his third game one shutout on Sunday). The only games where he looked awful (four and five against Chicago) were the result of the team in front of him looking even worse. The lone concern were those Legwand-type goals: the odd angle, WTF moments where that little piece of rubber was determined to sneak through his equipment. Perhaps that's just Predators hockey (making you pay in the worst, if not strangest, ways) but it's a kick in the groin when it's a late equalizer or a tally in the last minute of the period. The next opponent is a different beast than Chicago and Nashville, but they'll need Luongo to continue the strong play while eliminating the fluke scores.
Offensive Support - Before games five and six, Raymond had no points, Hansen had nothing dating back to game two in the first round and Torres had nothing at all. By the end of game five they had all gotten on the scoreboard and Raymond was clutch again in game six. But if the close games are going to continue or if the Sedins/Kesler struggle, the pressure will increase for production from the bottom six. The OZ numbers aren't in their favor but Hansen showed he can plunge the dagger into the opponent's chest, Torres knows how to find the open ice and Lapierre and Glass are manufactured for the greasy goals AV so loves. Hodgson simply doesn't get the icetime to be a scoring threat, but if he wants to add a goal to his first sniff of the NHL playoffs it'll be nothing short of massive. Tambellini is a wildcard as long as Samuelsson is on the shelf, but if the latter can come back we'd more than welcome those sneaky wristers that took LA down last year.
Defensive Miscues - If anyone knows a website that tallies defensive zone giveaways or odd-man rushes, please do share. Until then note that Vancouver has 57 defensive giveaways and three of the top five blueliners with the most: Bieksa (16, worst in the league), Ehrhoff (11) and Hamhuis (11). For perspective, Detroit's has 39 defensive giveaways, San Jose with 42. It's the product of a system where Vancouver's defense gets activated quickly on the rush, but it only takes one errant pass or bad bounce to create a high percentage scoring opportunity the other way.