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Are The NHL Playoffs Still The Goal?

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Two points out in the Pacific, and six points down ( behind a bunch of teams ) in the Wild Card. If the playoffs is The Goal at the end of this year, it has to be in the ( "sad trombone" ) Pacific Division, right ?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks have 32 games left after the All Star break, when we get the beginnings of the best of our sport, as the intensity will now ramp up until the Big Dance in April.  It is also the point where we start using phrases like "games in hand", "loser points", and "four point games".  For instance.  While the Canucks have played 50 games, the team they are tied with, the Ducks, have played 3 less, and the team immediately trailing them, the Flambes, while being 6 points behind, have only played 48 games so far.

It all starts after the All Star break, with the Canucks facing the Blue Jackets on Thursday, Fab 4th, and then the Flames on Saturday.  While I am sure the Hockey Night folks will do their usual fine job, in their own inimitable way for that one, letting us know how old Sam Bennett is or something equally as fun, that is two games at home that could help the team put up some points toward "the goal" this year.

After that, a quick two game road trip, where the NHL, decided that, with the Canucks having a week before their next home game ( the annual "Afternoon Delight" versus the Leafs ) the best way to do it is a Tuesday / Wednesday back to back, starting at elevation in Denver, and then facing the Coyotes in the desert the next night.

Oh well, such is life.  It is the hand the team is dealt this year.  Let's hope that they escape those two crucial games with some points and no injuries, and move on.

If you continue to break the rest of the season into five game segments.  after the first bunch of 2 away, and 3 at home, four of the next five after that are at home, with two games with the Wild and Ducks at home are followed by a quick flight to Calgary, and then two more that are part of a five game home stand. these two against the Avs and Senators.  This could be a trickier segment than the first five, but with points to be had.  Games will grow larger for some teams as their season waxes and wanes, as well.  For instance, the game versus the Flames could potentially be a dagger to their season if they lost that game at Rogers the first Saturday after the break.  Or it could be a game where the catch, and or pass the Canucks in the playoff race !

Will either team have the upper hand at this point ?  Who knows, but this isn't really a crystal ball type of post anyhow.  There are a lot of teams in the mix, but if they can handle their business against the teams they are competing with ( those two against the Avs stand out in that regard ), the team can still be competitive moving into March.

The last game in Febuary is against the Sharks at home, and that begins a slightly weird bit of scheduling again.  Well, maybe not weird, because you have to play all the teams, but after playing the team in teal on Sunday, the Canucks get what will be an intense ( and last game against Eastern opponent ) home game against the Islanders on the Tuesday before the Sharks hit the Rogers ice on Thursday ( I presume the Sharks would still be in town all that time, maybe we get "The Roxy Effect" for the second one? ) for the last of the five game home stand.

This five game segment, however, is finished up with "The California Trip".  I always love these games, no matter the results.  Canuck fans turn out in droves in the opposition arena, making the rink electric and loud.  This time it will be  ( "surprise! ) the Sharks and Kings who get to welcome their Canadian friends to watch a game.  This five game run might be the toughest of the bunch, especially if the San Jose team is playing well at that point.

Let's pump up the next two segments to six.  For March, there will be twelve more games, and seven of those will be at home.  In fact, of the first six, five of those are at Rogers Arena, with the Coyotes, Predators, Jets and Avs coming to town.

Another "timebomb" in the sked ( seriously NHL, WTF ?  One 7 gamer, Two 6 gamers this year, AND this kind of bizarre stuff? Next year's schedule better be a bit more even handed than this one ! ) follows, with the end of that four game home stand ( on a Wednesday ) being followed by a trip to Edmonton on a Friday, before flying back home to face the Blues on the Saturday.  If the team is still "in the hunt" at this point, they might at least get to face a couple ( the Oilers and Jets ) of teams playing the kids and trying to tank for next year.

After that, 4 of the next 6 are on the road.  If the team is still in the hunt after the above segment, this one will be a bear.  A 3 game road trip to Winnipeg, Nashville and St Louis, and then 2 at home against the Hawks and Sharks, before ending March against the Sharks in San Jose.

I take back what I said earlier.  This is the toughest segment.  One could even say that how they do in this part of the schedule will make or break "The Goal" for this year.

After that, the final 5 games of the season are all against the Pacific division.  The Ducks, ( on a back to back after the Sharks game ), the Kings at home , and then another back to back against the Oilers and Flames in Alberta, before ending the season at home against the Oilers.  If the team is close, or needing a run, even with the scheduling to deal with, this could be a time where they make that late charge to gain the final spot.  Or maybe not.  The Alberta teams will probably play them hard regardless of how far they are out ( and who knows if they will even be out this year !? ;-) The last five games will be like playoff games, most likely.

So, there is the schedule in bite sized niblets.  I am sure you may agree or disagree with the thoughts on where they might be along the way with me, and that is fine.  I have no Palantir to the NHL head offices, nor do I profess any skills at prognostication.  Hell, I think I might inhabit the very bottom of the Score Predicting Wizards standings.  But along the way, some fun things to think about :

- Looking at Febuary, there are a couple of decisive points on the calendar that could affect The Goal", even more than the performance on the ice.  How soon after the break will The Captain return ?  The reports are sooner than later, but given it was his chest, and Henrik Sedin 's high pain threshhold, let's hope the first few games out of the box are good results, and that they are able to keep him  from playing as long as possible, to get as much healing in as he can.  Because you know he will push hard to get in right away.

- And, how soon into the month will Jim Benning start make moves ?  He has one to make ASAP. trying to find Prust a home., and, depending on "The Goal"'s progress, will he be thinking pick or player to help along the way ?  ( It's Prust, he probably won't get much for him ). Hamhuis, if he comes back and the defense suddenly gets solid ( er ) because of what he does, does Mr Benning re-sign him, or trade the expiring contract with definite value?  What will the return for Vrbata be ?  You have to think  the record early on will affect our GM's ideas of what he wants to trade for.

"The Goal" is real, they talk about the value of making the dance all the time.  I tend to agree on that point.  There is nothing like that competition to let young players know what real playoff hockey is like.  They could very well trade Vrbata for someone no one expects, but goes "yeah, he'd help them right now...", instead of the bounty of young prospects everyone expects a rebuilding team to trade for.

- A little over half of the games remaining are against the Pacific. ( 17 ) The Canucks are currently 6-3-3 versus their own division.

- 12-10-6 so far versus the East is OK, I guess.  Winning those four remaining games against the Jackets, Senators, Leafs and Islanders is not that crazy of an idea, and could end up being the difference at the end of the year.  Of course, any dropped points against them will consequently be viewed as the worst thing ever.  But the only games to not potentially qualify as "four point games" could be very important ones in the end.

- The real test of the season to come, is, of course, the games against the best division this year, the Central.  There are 11 left against that division.  With a record of only 2-6-2 so far in games with the Central, they had better hope that they can pick it up.  March is when they play 8 of those games, including a 3 gamer through the 'Peg, Nashville and St Louis before coming home to face the Hawks.

- Lastly, will the injury list be as busy in the second half as it was in the first ?  Willie Desjardins should actually be commended more for the job he has done, with a lineup that changed on an almost daily basis.  The preseason bobbleheads all had his team at the bottom of the West, and they have overperformed with half of the Utica Comets playing games in the NHL this year instead.  The way the rookie and sophomore centres filled the ice time left behind by Brandon Sutter's 33 game injury was indicative of the hustle and hard work that has come to exemplify this year's team.  While not part of "The Goal" and the beginning of the year, that growth is almost as important as playing meaningful games down the stretch and into the dance.  For Willie to keep his team competitive through this quicksilver lineup has been quietly impressive.

There are some tough games, as well as the "time bombs" that all teams have to face to some degree.  I am sure there will be games won that were unexpected, and losses to teams that points were expected off of.  There is no predicting this season, maybe unlike any other.  Tell me you expected the team to lead the NHL in OTL's with 11.  Even with the losses in O/T being pretty high ( what was it, 8-9 losses before a win at 3 on 3 ? ), the dynamic of the youth getting increasing minutes through a season where they are in close games all season is almost more important than the record.  In a game of mistakes, you learn the most from the negative ones.  Mainly because you feel like s#it when you feel it was you that cost the team a game, and you want to make sure "that doesn't happen ever again".

Sure, the Canucks may not get to the playoffs this year, and if they do, they won't be a favorite in any series they play.  But their 33-1 odds for the Cup are still better than pretty well anyone else in Canada at he moment ( big whoop, Canada's teams all suck right now !The Canucks are the best Western Canadian team only right now, both the Sens and Habs have them pipped by one point at the break ), and "The Goal" is a good one when you think ion terms of "the long game".  Like his last team, the Bruins, Mr Benning is looking to do what they did there.  Use youth, good picks, and trades to revamp a team that had grown stale, but was still amongst the elite teams as far as winning goes.  The Canucks were the team with the 5th best record in the regular season over the past decade before Tort's Tire Fire.  They want to continue to keep that environment while retooling.  The plan of continuing to always want to win, and always competing to win, is sometimes more important than the actual winning.

We all know the results in the playoffs have been below par.  That number will probably not get better in the opening round, if they make it this year.  But The Goal is going to pay off down the road.  For as long as the team is in the hunt this season, whether or not they reach it this year, the payoff in the next couple years after that will be sweeter as a result of the experiences gained in the drive to attain it this season.