The Vancouver Canucks concluded a strong road trip with a win Tuesday night in Nashville, defeating the Predators 3-1. The Canucks also beat the Ottawa Senators and Caroline Hurricanes on this eastern swing, with the lone blemish coming at the hands of Coach John Tortorella’s former team the New York Rangers, a 5-2 defeat that must have felt pretty good for Alain Vigneault, former Canuck’s boss who is now behind the bench for the Blueshirts.
The Canucks’ success was primarily due to better production on offense, especially from players other than the Sedins, and some increased success on the power play. More secondary scoring is going to be the key to the Canucks getting back into a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Vancouver averaged 3.25 goals per game, a marked improvement on the 2.6 goals per game the team was averaging going into the trip. Ryan Kesler was the offensive star of the trip, scoring twice against Carolina and adding two more against Nashville. Unlike earlier success Kesler had when playing with the Sedins, these goals came with the Centerman back to anchoring the second line. Kesler now has 14 goals on the season, which is tops on the team and places him in a tie for seventh in the league.
Daniel Sedin also added two goals, giving him 10 for the season, including the 300th of his career. Daniel continues to hit plenty of shots on goal, but his finishing has still not returned to previous levels. The Canucks need Daniel to further heat up to propel the offense forward.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign on the trip were two goals by David Booth. Booth has struggled early in the season, with past injuries hindering the explosiveness of the big forward. Booth’s lackluster play resulted in a brief stint with the Canuck’s American Hockey League team in Utica as well as some time in the press box. A return to form by Booth is even more critical now that Alexander Burrows is out for at least a month with a broken jaw. Booth’s ability to spend some time with the Sedins will allow Tortorella to leave Kesler on the second line, improving the depth of the squad and minimizing the need for the top three forwards to play excessive minutes.
Other depth forwards also contributed on the road trip, with goals coming from third and fourth liners Dale Weise, Tom Sestito, Mike Santorelli and Brad Richardson. These contributions are especially important since Christopher Higgins and Jannik Hansen, ostensibly the Canucks other second line forwards, failed to score, and Burrows was still without a goal before his injury.
Unfortunately the defensemen failed to join the scoring party, with only one back line player contributing a goal, a power play tally by Jason Garrison. Alexander Edler has only scored once in the last six weeks, and Garrison’s goal was his first since the second game on the season. Edler left the game after the first period against Nashville and is now reported to have a lower-body injury.
"Alex Edler is day-to-day with a lower body injury" – Torts #Canucks
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) December 4, 2013
Power Play Improves
Another key component of the Canucks’ recent success was a return to life of the moribund power play. Going into the trip, the Canucks ranked 28th in power play goals, converting only 11.5 percent of its opportunities. Vancouver scored a power play goal in each game on the road trip, finishing 4 for 13 overall, a healthy 31 percent rate. Kesler scored twice with the man advantage, and Daniel and Garrison added one each.
The second power play unit is still being kept off the scoresheet, and the loss of Burrows will not the help the cause in this regard. But even if Vancouver can begin to convert regularly with the first unit, it can expect to see its overall offensive numbers show marked improvement.
Goaltending (Mostly) Consistent
The improved offensive output is certainly the biggest contributor to Vancouver’s success, but the goaltending continues to be strong as well. The Rangers game was a bit of an anomaly, with Roberto Luongo surrendering three goals on 10 shots in that game and Eddie Lack allowing two more. But in the other three games, Vancouver allowed only 1.67 goals per game, and even with the Rangers game the final total was a solid 2.50 average.
Eddie Lack got the start against Carolina, and he registered a .935 save percentage and gave up only two goals. Lack has been a solid backup in his first season in the NHL, and the increasing confidence Tortorella is developing should help Luongo get a little bit of rest throughout the season.
Luongo continues to be solid, with a 2.35 goals against average and .914 save percentage. He must considered a front-runner for the Canadian goaltending job at the Sochi Olympics, magnifying the need for Lack to contribute if Luongo plays heavily during the Olympic break.
Granted, the Canucks did not exactly dominate any frontrunners on this trip, with none of the teams they beat currently sitting in a playoff spot. But anytime you can win three of four on a road trip, there are reasons for optimism. If the scoring by Vancouver’s third and fourth line can continue, Vancouver has a chance to rise in the standings and get itself back into the top eight in the Western Conference. The Canucks now return home for a five-game homestand, including games with tough opponents Colorado and Boston. Winning at least three of these games (and contests with Phoenix, Carolina and Edmonton are definitely winnable) will be critical to keeping the team moving forward.
Glenn covers the Canucks for The Hockey Writers. Follow me on twitter @glennkuper for opinions about hockey, the Canucks, and Seattle sports.