- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Well, we had warned hockey fans that a short, compacted season would be full of surprises, and to expect the unexpected.
But if we told you before the puck dropped this season that a midseason matchup between the Vancouver Canucks and Columbus Blue Jackets would feature a club in disarray, having won only three times in 12 games, against a red-hot squad with five straight wins, well, I think we all know which club you have guessed was which.
That Tuesday night’s encounter in Columbus in fact pits the streaking Jackets hosting the slumping Canucks, well, I guess that just goes to prove a 48-game season is indeed open to almost anything.
So you might as well believe this, too: If the Jackets beat the Canucks in regulation Tuesday night, they’ll be only two points behind them in the jam-jar standings of the Western Conference.
What in the wild, wild world of sports is going on, you say?
Let’s start in Vancouver, where the city’s all-sports radio station The Team 1040 was lit up with distressed Canucks fans over the past 36 hours. A glimpse at Tuesday’s stories in the Vancouver Province and the Vancouver Sun gives you a flavor of where things stand in a city that has Cup expectations again this season but has seen its team slip down to sixth in the Western standings.
Credit to Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who returned my call Monday in all this madness. The disappointment in his voice was clearly detectable three time zones away before he jumped on a plane.
"Our team hasn’t played well for a little bit now, and we need to get it sorted out," Gillis told ESPN.com. "Missing Kesler and Bieksa has been tough, but it gives other guys a chance to step up and do more. We have to keep pushing and get back to a level that’s acceptable."
No question, the injuries to No. 2 center Ryan Kesler and top-four blueliner Kevin Bieksa have hurt the club. The Canucks are just never the same when Kesler isn’t doing his thing; it puts too much pressure on the Sedin twins to deliver on the top line, while Bieksa in many ways is the face of the team.
Having said that, this is the season of the injury in the NHL. Every team is going through it. Do you think the Ottawa Senators are feeling bad for the Canucks?
And so, the issues run deeper:
• The Canucks' power play stinks. Mired in an 0-for-23 slump, it’s fallen to 24th in the NHL. This is a unit that was fourth overall last season and topped the NHL in 2010-11.
"You need more than two power plays a game to get it going," Gillis said. "We’re not generating enough push to create penalties."
• The team is in dire need of help at center. It's been playing all season without a real No. 3 center, and with Kesler once again out, there's no No. 2 center for the moment. It's hard to win in this league without a No. 2 or a No. 3 center.
• Then there’s the goalie drama. Roberto Luongo awaits his trade, although he’s been a terrific pro about it and hasn’t made waves. But his mere presence, some will argue, has affected Cory Schneider's ability to establish himself as a No. 1 netminder. Luckily, the two goalies get along. The question is, is it a distraction for the two netminders and for the team in general?
"One of the reasons that you are All-Star players is that you can overcome distractions," Gillis said. "These guys have won the Jennings Trophy [awarded to goalies who've allowed the fewest goals against] together. I don’t think it’s a distraction in that dressing room. I think it’s an excuse for play that isn’t as good as what we’ve come to accept."
Easier said than done, but this team needs a trade before April 3. It needs a No. 3 center.
In Vancouver’s defense, there hasn’t been a lot of trade activity so far. With the standings so close, few teams are sellers yet.
"You can try and be as active as you want, but the fact remains you still have to find something that is going to help your team," Gillis said. "It’s going to prove awfully difficult to do."
The answer, for now, has to come within. All eyes in that dressing room will turn to Luongo, who gets the start Tuesday night after Schneider carries the bulk of the starts over this 12-game stretch. Time for Bobby Lu to stop the bleeding.
Meanwhile, the Canucks' opponents on this night can do no wrong these days. And it’s not very often over the past decade you could ever say that about the Blue Jackets. Winners of five straight, including a weekend sweep of Detroit, the Jackets have impressed with their work ethic and relentlessness.
The recent hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen as GM somehow has woken up the league’s perennial doormat.
"The credit for this late success has to go to the right people: It belongs to the coaching staff and the players who have worked extremely hard and finally see some rewards for it," Kekalainen told ESPN.com on Monday.
This is an evaluation period for Kekalainen. He’s taking stock of what he has before he begins molding this team to his liking over the next few years. He’s obviously not going to lose sight of his long-term goals just because his club has won five straight.
"I always would look at the situation the same way to do everything possible to improve our team," he said. "I’ve talked about how sustained success is our main goal, not only to get to the top of the league but to stay there. That basically doesn’t change if you win five in a row or if you lose five in a row. You keep the same mindset, you have to do everything you can to improve the team, not only to be more competitive right now but also and mainly to achieve that sustained [long-term] success."
Still, it raises the question: If the Jackets get even closer to a playoff spot over the next three weeks, how does that affect his trade deadline strategy?
"You have time until the deadline to make moves to try to improve your team for this season, but also beyond that, and we’re going to use all that time to evaluate what we have in here and what we have that potentially could help us if we’re talking to other teams," Kekalainen said. "I would always stay away from making any moves that are based on urgency and that are reacting to the situation at hand."
In other words, the new GM is pleased with the way his players have reacted over the past few weeks. But the long-term view won’t deviate. He’s been hired to rebuild this team, and he’s got three first-round picks in the June draft to help kick-start that process.
Still, the five-game win streak has been enjoyable to watch.
"Those guys are working hard, and it’s great to see them getting rewarded," Kekalainen said. "I’m really happy for the all the guys in that room, they’ve played with heart, character and intensity. Those are key ingredients even with the teams that will have bigger names and more skill than our team. If you want to be an elite team in this league, you have to have character."
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance