After an interminably long summer of house cleaning, the Vancouver Canucks start the 2014-15 NHL season tonight against the woeful Abbotsford Heat Calgary Flames. While this particular foe still makes the Canucks look like world-beaters, there isn’t a pundit in the land who thinks Vancouver has a legitimate shot at winning the Pacific Division. So just how fair and middling will this year’s edition of the Vancouver Canucks be? I’m glad you asked. Here are seven questions we’re slobbering over ourselves in anticipation and excitement:
The Vancouver Giants opened the 2014-15 with a perfect September, taking a pair of wins off the rival Victoria Royals and beating the Portland Winterhawks for the first time in nine tries. Not since 2007 have the Giants gone three-and-oh to start the season — that year, in defense of their Memorial Cup win the previous spring, they won four straight off the hop, and won the BC Division by a country mile before dropping a disappointing second-round series to the Spokane Chiefs.
New coach Troy G Ward, late of the Abbotsford Heat, has the G-men playing a smart, aggressive game. Like most junior teams, Vancouver had a couple of their top players — in this case, leading scorer Jackson Houck and top D-man Mason Geertsen — out of the lineup as they attended NHL training camps. Even so, the Giants have played without panic, coming from behind in all three games for the perfect record.
Rookie Tyler Benson, listed at an even six feet tall, is playing bigger and faster than last season, which saw him skate in seven WHL games as an underage player. He has already made an impact, scoring twice and pressuring opposition defensemen just about every time he’s stepped on the ice. His goal against the Portland Winterhawks was a thing of beauty, as he scampered past blueliner Layne Viveiros off a face-off in the Giants zone, skated the length of the ice alone, and coolly backhanded the puck past Adin Hill. As you watch Benson shred it up this season, keep in mind that this kid is just 16 years old.
Drew Doughty, that fella wearing number eight for the Los Angeles Kings is about to add ‘Conn Smythe winner’ to his resume. This will sit nicely beside ‘two-time Olympic gold medallist’, ‘two-time Stanley Cup champion’, ‘Norris trophy nominee’ and ‘filthy, stinkin’ rich cat who let’s face it ought to be able to afford better hair care’.
Godawful facial growth aside, Doughty is every bit the MVP, anchoring the back end of the most feared defense in the land. At just 24, he’s got credentials among active NHLers only rivalled by countrymen Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. Barring injury, and assuming he doesn’t get bored, he’ll have built a Hall of Fame career long before he hits the traditional defenseman’s peak of 30 years old.
With the exception of four games during the NHL lockout, the Battle of Alberta had never managed to inspire box office success in the Fraser Valley. Last weekend saw a minor uptick, with the official attendance landing just north of 5,000. Sadly, the team’s average this year was nearly two grand fewer than that, which puts the City of Abbotsford on the hook for millions of dollars of guaranteed revenue support to the team. So yeah, instead of paying an uncertain sum at the end of each season for the next five years, Abbotsford will fork over $5.5 million here and now to have the team just… go away.
Does it matter that the Heat are on their way to the post-season? Is it important that blame can be thrown at everything from poor marketing to even worse public relations, from to smalltown politics to a bizarre, small-minded Canucks-or-nothing mindset in the Vancovuer area? No, nope, and nuh-uh. Sayonara, American Hockey League. Abbotsford City Council has homeless people to shame over here — they don’t have time for you any longer.
On the ice, the Heat have won eight of their last eleven, and hqve now tied their best-ever point total (92). With a tie or a win on Saturday, they’ll be saying adios after a franchise record under their belts. This despite sending record numbers of prospects up to the big club during a rash of injuries in the Calgary Flames locker room for extended periods this season.
Using techniques developed by my wife’s Mayan ancestors, including sacrificing several bulls under this week’s blood moon, I have determined beyond a reasonable doubt who will win the 2014 Stanley Cup. Unless the sun implodes and Stephen Harper finally reveals that he is now, and always has been, an Amway representative, the San Jose Sharks will leave greasy playoff beard residue on Lord Stanley’s mug.
Fans in Vancouver are predictably blasé about the NHL playoffs; the Canucks have missed the post-season for the first time since 2008, and YVR hockey fans aren’t exactly renowned for loving the game so much as their team. (Case in point: the Abbotsford Heat are shutting up shop at the conclusion of their playoff run after years of decreasing returns in the Valley. People out thisaway are so scared of Calgary Flames cooties they’ve refused to see professional puck for $20.)
We at Pucked in the Head believe in celebrating the game, even when our local team comes up lame. Here are Jason’s picks for this year’s post-season. He’s so concussed by the ascension of Zack Kassian and the retirements of Teemu Selanne and Ryan Smythe — not to mention the bizarre first-round matchups determined by the NHL’s new wild card system — that he’s thumbing for Stanley Cup supremacy… the San Jose Sharks (!?!?!?!)
The Abbotsford Heat hold their final homestand of the regular season this weekend, with games against the Oklahoma City Barons on Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
The Heat are riding high at the moment, having clinched a playoff berth after sitting out last year’s post-season. They are also celebrating goaltender Joni Ortio’s nomination to the AHL All-Rookie Team for 2013-14; Ortio has been a revelation in the Heat crease, netting 24 wins and two shutouts in just 34 games played. As well, left winger Sven Baertschi has knotted seven points in two games against the Rockford Ice Hogs last week, earning AHL Player of the Week honours.
The Barons have just four wins in their past ten games, and have lost four of the last five meetings with Abbotsford. This weekend marks a return for former Heat forward Roman Horak, who is the Barons leading scorer this season.
With five games left, the Heat sit in fifth place in the Western Conference, and are almost guaranteed to open the post-season against the St Louis Blues affiliate Chicago Wolves.
For those interested in ye olde arena foode, Friday night’s game features 3-2-1 pricing on beer, hot dogs and soda; if prizes are your thing, Sunday’s home finale offers fan appreciation giveaways, including jerseys and a freaking car.
After a six-game road swing that saw the Abbotsford Heat play .500 hockey, they return to the AESC in the Valley to host the dirty rotten stinkin’ no-good Rockford Ice Hogs. The games mark the chance for local fans to get their first look at Calgary Flames first-round pick Morgan Klimchuk, who scored 74 points in 57 games with the Regina Pats in junior this year, and Collin Valcourt, an undrafted player who had 72 points as an overaged WHL player with Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
Abbotsford won both games in Rockford earlier in the season, winning 4-2 and 4-3 in OT; recently, however, the Ice Hogs have been on something of a tear, moving from non-playoff contention two months ago into seventh place in the West.
The Heat currently sit in fifth in the Western Conference; if the post-season started today they’d match up with the fourth-place Chicago Wolves, AHL affiliate of the St Louis Blues.
Abbotsford has back-to-back games against the Chicago Blackhawks farm team tonight and tomorrow, followed by a Friday/Sunday doubleheader against the baby Edmonton Oilers from Oklahoma City. They’ll finish the season with three games in three nights the following weekend before opening the 2014 AHL playoffs.
I’m totally stealing most of this information from the Abbotsford Heat website, but everything above is at least paraphrased. In honour of some of my writing students grappling with citation and plagiarism, the following sentence is word-for-word ripped from www.abbotsfordheat.com: Max Reinhart (2-5-7), Derek Smith (0-6-6), and Ben Street (4-4-8) are all riding five game point streaks into this weekend.
After finishing dead last with a dismal 44 points just a year ago, the Vancouver Giants made massive strides, improved by 31 points and nabbed the seventh seed in the WHL Western Conference. The season featured a brutal 1-9 start, a remarkable run through the middle of the schedule that saw the G-Men threaten the top four for home ice advantage in the first round, and a home stretch full of injuries and inconsistent play.
Such is the way of the world in junior hockey during a rebuilding phase.
So what does a seventh place finish get you? A dance card full of scoring leaders, defensive stalwarts and Team Canada representatives, that’s what. The Portland Winterhawks are the defending WHL champions, and despite losing stud blueliner Seth Jones to the Nashville Predators, they’re an absolute juggernaut when they’re firing on all cylinders.
Whatever playoff aspirations still existed in the Vancouver Canucks dressing room — misguided, maybe, but they were there — must have taken a serious thumping during the third period of last night’s 7-4 loss to the lowly, John Tavares-less New York Islanders.
Up 3-0 going into the final 20 minutes of the game, the Canucks managed to give up a converted touchdown in a single period for the first time since a kid named Wayne Gretzky swaggered into Vancouver with the dynastic Edmonton Oilers. And, as Ryan Kesler said of the present-day Islanders after the game, “let’s face it, [New York] is not one of the top teams in the NHL. We had a three-nothing lead to start the third. This just can’t happen.”
Sadly, not only can it go down, Mr Kesler, but it did happen. On home ice. During the stretch run. Less than a week after the GM traded away a future Hall of Fame goaltender.
In the first two periods, the Isles had just nine shots on goal. Fast forward twenty minutes, and they had nearly that many goals.
Sure, there were positives. Henrik Sedin got a lucky bounce off an Islander defenceman — lucky bounces have been few and far between for the Canucks of late, but it marked the first goal in 23 games for the captain. Alex Burrows didn’t get off the gorilla-choking, gut-twisting schneid he’s been riding all season, but he did get awarded an apple on Ryan Kesler’s 22nd goal of the year. Replays show Burrows gave a swing and a miss when Kevin Bieksa’s shot from the slot pinged off the post, but when Kesler put it home, the scorekeepers gave Burr the phantom assist for his 300th career NHL point.
But let’s not kid anyone. There are no moral victories in a game that goes that far south that quickly. Less than five minutes of gutless, idiot play in the third period undid 40 minutes of solid two-way hockey. Dumb penalties from Jensen, Bieksa and Sestito translated into a tie game within minutes of the third period puck drop. Add a couple that Lack would like to have back, and the Isles put a pick-six on the board before the third was halfway done.
The Canucks collapse, though, wasn’t half as scary as what awaited Eddie Lack in the dressing room.