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Half way report: Pump the brakes?

Even though the Canucks played very well against a top quality team last night, they have dropped below a .500 record again. The playoffs are still not a probable outcome this season, but it’s possible they could be in a wild card spot approaching the trade deadline.

Looking at the standings, the Canucks are only a point back of Dallas and Edmonton for the last playoff spot. A lot of people are feeling pretty optimistic about the Canucks chances leading into the Christmas break, and there are good reasons for that.

The brightest light is our leader in the Calder race Elias “Dekey Pete” Pettersson who has continued to make dazzling plays every game despite drawing the attention of shut down men across the league. He’s got a great triggerman in Brock “The Flow” Boeser who is returning to last year’s Calder worthy form now that he’s completely healthy.

Next Year’s presumptive Captain Bo “Scorevat” Horvat has been putting up goals at a career best pace while also drawing the toughest shut down matchups. Could he be in the conversation for a Selke this year? Probably not unless he drags his team into the playoffs, but perhaps in the future.

Even the patchy development of “Shotgun” Jake Virtanen is looking good, and it only gets better as he starts to see more ice time, especially when it’s with the Horvat line, on the power play, and late in games with the goalie pulled.

Alex Edler has come back from injury to immediately play excellent hockey, including some good scoring and big minutes in all situations. He is paired with cool-as-a-cucumber Chris Tanev who has also flashed some unexpected offence.

Despite struggles in the past when he played with Eric Gudbranson, a fully redeemed Ben Hutton is looking like a legitimate middle pairing player, and second unit power play point man.

Although it’s a big blow to the team to lose steady and hard working right shot defenceman Troy Stetcher, Alex “Bulldog” Biega has continued his reputation of coming out of the press box hot: playing hard, fast and effectively.

Goaltender Jacob Markstrom has settled in to the undisputed Number 1 spot, and lately has been playing the best hockey of his whole NHL career.

If Sutter and Baertschi come back and hit the ground running, could this team be a contender for the playoffs? Maybe, but it’s still a tall order. They will have to come back and perform well on the road.

The teams the Canucks are racing for a playoff spot are all ahead of them in %wins.

Calgary is firmly at the top spot in the division, so the Canucks are actually competing for two division spots, and then (more realistically) two wild card spots.

As a rough and ready calculation I always say that a game in hand is worth one point (because playoff teams must, by definition, play better than half the teams in the league). Let’s call these “Expected Points” and understand that they are the minimum to expect from a playoff caliber team.

The Canucks have played 39 games so far. As of Saturday Night 22 Dec 2018, here are the standings with the actual games played (GP), present points (Pts) and the expected points for 39 games in brackets.

Pacific Division:

Calgary: GP 37, Pts 47 (49)
San Jose: GP 37, Pts 44 (46)
Vegas: GP 38, Pts 44 (45)

Wild Card:

Anaheim: GP 38, Pts 43 (44)
Dallas: GP 36, Pts 39 (42)

Non-Playoff teams by expected points:

Edmonton: GP 36, Pts 39 (42)
Minnesota: GP 35, Pts 37 (41)
Vancouver: GP 39, Pts 38 (38)

That means the Canucks are really 4 points back of Dallas and Edmonton for the last wild card, with Minnesota also 3 points ahead of Vancouver.

Are those teams good? Maybe not dominant good, but possibly better than the Canucks.

Hitch has really stabilized the Oilers and they do have arguably the best player in the world. If they can keep from bleeding goals they could stay on their recent winning run.

Dallas has just finished a brutal road schedule with four losses in a row, but they are at home for a lot of games coming up where they are dominant. They started their home stand with a win last night in the dogfight against Minny.

As Dubnyk returns to form Minnesota is looking dangerous again. Don’t forget they have a +4 goal differential despite the big guns going through a cold spell. That’s better than all the teams in the wild card chase. Vancouver is -8 despite the solid play of Markstrom behind the young snipers.

Our boys are not really in the race for the playoffs unless they can play better than .500 hockey on the road trip after Christmas.

The Canucks come back from the short break to go on a road trip with a critical “Four point” game against the surging Oilers followed by the division leading Calgary Flames. Both those teams will be coming off a nice rest and playing in their own barns, so it won’t be a cake walk, but it’s possible that the Canucks could take two points off the Oilers.

Then it’s on to the jet lag express to play New Jersey on New Year’s Eve (well, afternoon), back to back in Ottawa and Montreal, and then Toronto. That’s five games in ten days on the road across three time zones. Where are the points going to come from? Hopefully the Canucks can punish the woeful Senators, and the self-destructing Devils. It’s too bad that the game in Montreal is a schedule loss, because that team is beatable. Toronto at the end of the road trip will be a hard game for the Canucks to win.

Wins in Edmonton, New Jersey, and Ottawa would be a successful trip.

The rest of the month of January is a six game home stand against some marginal teams with not a single back-to-back. That’s where the Canucks have their best chance to pull ahead of the other teams in the playoff race and get firmly above .500 which is what is required in the era of the loser point.

As I said, not impossible, but .500 hockey is not going to do it. Time to have a better than .500 road trip and get a good winning streak going at home in January. If that happens (and it looks possible), the Canucks could be barely in a playoff spot to start February, four weeks before the trade deadline.

The next question is: would that be a good thing?