The Sunday Crease: The B-Line, Defensive Depth and Standings Madness

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With the end of October nearly here, it’s finally time to start taking the NHL standings seriously.

NHL Hockey Standings - NHL.com

Um, never mind. We’d better give it another week or two.

It says a lot about the absolute madness going on in the NHL when the Canucks jumping from 29th overall last year to third in the Pacific now is considered a mild surprise. For comparison Vancouver’s new division rivals, the Golden Knights, have a three point lead on the Canucks for second in the division, despite having a game in hand and both of their top two goalies injured. The Kings missed the postseason last year, and now they lead the Pacific with an amazing 9-1-1 record.

What’s even more crazy is the list of teams sitting behind the Canucks. The Oilers made the semifinals last season, and right now they sit second to last in the Western Conference. The Sharks and Flames are tied with 10 points each, but are still three points behind Vancouver. Even the Ducks, last year’s division winner and Western Conference finalist, are on the outside of the playoff bubble.

Obviously there’s a lot more hockey left to be played, and the likelihood of the standings staying this way are next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean you should count the possibility out either. The Canucks’ have arguably been playing their best hockey in years lately, highlighted by a 6-2 crushing of the Washington Capitals on Friday.

The win didn’t come without a cost. Brock Boeser, who had three assists, has been temporarily shelved due to a bruised foot. Jayson Megna has been called up from the Comets for the time being, sending Canucks Nation into a panic.

But he and his linemates, Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi, proved on Friday that they can not just compete with the best in the NHL, but become one of the league’s best as well. The Canucks have found their scoring line and a group of depth players, and with even as small a lead as they have on a division playoff spot and a lot of games ahead, the team’s newfound chemistry might be the difference that puts them into the postseason.

Defense Steched Thin

The Canucks defense took another major hit this week when the team announced that Troy Stecher would be out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury sustained on an innocent looking collision with Detroit’s Tomas Tatar last Sunday.

In his absence Vancouver called up Patrick Wiercioch from Utica while Alex “The Bulldog” Biega made his season debut against Minnesota on Tuesday. Amazingly, the Canucks’ blue line has barely bent in the last two games, giving up just two goals against, even with two of their top four defenders out of the lineup.

It’s certainly possible that Vancouver’s defensive group is just that strong this year, but the Canucks haven’t faced too many high-octane offensive clubs yet this season. The Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins both visit Rogers Arena this week in what will be a big litmus test for the group. They passed with flying colours against the Capitals on Friday, but now they’ll need to back it up.

Around the Rinks

  • The Panthers claimed goalie Antti Niemi on waivers from the Penguins on Tuesday, due in large part to a hand injury suffered by Roberto Luongo. Niemi’s short stint with the Pens was marred by an 0-3 record and an abysmal save percentage of .797, having let in a combined 16 goals in those three starts. I went back to watch some of the highlights from Niemi’s games, and it’s pretty clear to see why the wheels have fallen off for him. Slow reaction speed and poor rebound control was the culprit on a number of goals that beat him.. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Luongo’s injury left them with practically no great options for a backup role behind James Reimer. Niemi was the only realistic choice, and hopefully he finds a way to get himself back into NHL form.
  • Staying with goalies, the Golden Knights are on a tear like no expansion team before them, all while losing both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban to injuries. Call-up Oscar Dansk has performed amazingly in their absence, winning three games and, most recently, earning the franchise’s first ever shutout in a 7-0 blowout of the Colorado Avalanche. But even as they’ve romped their way to the best start by any NHL expansion club in history, the Knights have a serious issue to deal with in the form of Vadim Shipachyov, whose second demotion to the AHL has seemingly ended in a less than admirable fashion.

    Shipachyov’s very short stint in Vegas appears to be over before it could even really begin, but let’s hope this doesn’t mean the end of his NHL career.

Canucks Money on the Board

The fine folks at fellow hockey blog Canucks Army are running a fun initiative this season called Canucks Money on the Board, a donation game where you pledge money for certain events during Canucks games to Make-A-Wish BC/Yukon. For example, you can bet $10 for every Bo Horvat goal this season, or $2 for every time Eric Gudbranson makes a hit during a specific game.

For my season-long pledge, I’ll be donating $5 for every Canucks shutout this year. So far Anders Nilsson has put my total at $10, and I’m expecting Jacob Markstrom to buck his career long shutout drought this year and contribute to the donation as well. If you want to make your own pledge, visit Canucks MOTB’s Twitter for more information. Have fun!

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