At first glance, it might seem like an odd question. The Canucks look good to go for the playoffs, but in the Western Conference, it’s no sure thing. The Sharks are a lock, of course, but they suddenly find themselves in a dead heat with Detroit for the conference title and the President’s Trophy. So the motivation for both teams seems obvious.
And it’s worth noting that, in the professional game, the players have the added luxury of being motivated by money. Salaries in the NHL are ultimately tied to performance. And in what is expected to be a shrinking salary cap, there will be more competition for less dollars. The players have been made aware of this.
Jeeze, almost like the real world.
But also, in the world of the professional hockey player, it is more than just money. Not to be a Pollyanna here, but I really do believe that these guys are motivated by purer concepts…like winning. And if you ever entered any competition you understand instinctively that one basic truism…winning is more fun. Sure, you might learn more by losing occasionally, but the fact is, winning is better for your health. Better for your soul.
And tonight we have another benchmark game.
How do we measure up against the elite?
That’s the question we want answered tonight. San Jose hasn’t had much to play for recently, and it’s shown in their record. They’ve lost some stinkers…like blowing a three goal lead against the Wild last game. Their motivation to break out of that mini-slump will bring more intensity to their game tonight.
As for our guys, well, outside of the aforementioned obvious, we also want to prove we can play with these guys. We need to believe we are destined for the playoffs this year and we need to do all those little things correctly that make for successful playoff hockey. Sure, we have been surging recently, but outside of a couple of exceptions, we haven’t beaten a lot of tough teams.
Tonight’s the chance to do that.
So I expect the A game from both teams. And if we get that, we should get a first class display of speed, skill and toughness. If we don’t…well there’s always the chat boards.
But we are not disappointed tonight. The main thing that I look for in games like this is: do we look ready? Are we doing the little things that win hockey games…forwards supporting the puck possession game? Defense making the good first pass? Forwards coming all the way back so that the D men aren’t endlessly circling waiting for a breakout?
There have been worrisome signs at other times this season. Our young D often looked vulnerable. Our older D looked slow. Tonight it looks to me that both Edler and Bieksa have found a new confidence and Edler is rewarded, scoring a classic one timer after a sweet feed by Ohly. Edler’s name probably came up in just about every trade proposal this year. It’s plain that Gillis wouldn’t bite.
The first goal is always important but against the Sharks you have to get the first one. Trying to play catch up is where these guys bury you. We are all over the Sharks tonight.
The other problem we’ve faced in the past few years is secondary scoring. It was pretty common knowledge that if you shut down the Sedins, you shut down the Cancucks. There was a brief flury at the start of this winning streak when Mats Sundin got his game together and the secondary scoring appeared. Kesler was filling the net at a pace we haven’t seen since he played for the Moose. Since that flury, Mats has mostly picked up assists…not a bad thing mind you, and Mats has never been one to threaten to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, even in his best days as a Leaf. But less than three minutes after Edler’s goal, Mats pots one off a great feed from Demitra. Up two against the Sharks! Mats is a great player, but Kesler is an absolute forechecking monster and he’s the guy that really makes that line go.
And what I’d hoped for shows up. We are more than ready tonight. The shots are even at the end of the period, but the Sharks are mostly kept to the periphery. Roberto has been solid, but he’s only been seriously tested a couple of times. Throughout the period he was square to the puck and didn’t have to put up with a lot of traffic.
And we are even better in the second in terms of territorial advantage, but teams like the Sharks didn’t get where they are by just laying down. We look to be good to get out of the period when Bieksa takes one of those infuriating “new” hooking penalties. We still look to be out with a two goal lead when Big Joe Thorton makes us pay with a lousy three seconds left.
Nothing easy tonight.
But we don’t panic coming out for the third. Last second goals in a period are like wooden stakes through the heart. But the boys shake it off and just keep pressing, pressing, forcing San Jose into a penalty halfway through the third. Bieksa does make up play, as he has been doing lately, scoring the PP goal after Setagouchi takes the total bonehead penalty. The two goal lead is back, but don’t forget folks, this is San Jose. They will keep coming. But we know how to play the 1-2-2 as well as anyone. The Sharks get their shots, but real scoring chances are minimal until “the save of the game.”
Big Bob Luongo “saves” his best effort for the last few minutes. Luongo never gives up on the puck (just ask Ron Spence’s close personal friend Don Cherry) and he gives the fans an eye-popping save off of Cheechoo that leaves the Sharks shaking their heads.
A late Bernier penalty could have been worrisome, but this Canucks team is so confident, their game is so poised, the Sharks PP doesn’t even threaten. A huge win for our guys. But keep in mind that we’ve won nothing yet. Certainly, the Sharks are in a mini-slump, and we did not let up on them. Not ready to plan the parade route yet. But the good news is, we have too often been slump busters for other teams in the past. Not tonight.
When the Canucks were in their slump, I kept saying that I believed in the players on this team. I believed we had the elements necessary for a successful season. Talent and character were evident even though we were losing. And that kind of adversity makes teams that survives it much, much stronger. And now that we are winning, I’m convinced of one other fact that could really make the difference this year.
I believe we can be better.