VANCOUVER – The first-ever meeting between the Vancouver Canucks and re-born Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night will have many intriguing subplots.
But the main storyline is becoming familiar. The Canucks will face yet another strong test from a team that is desperate to make the playoffs.
Lately, the results have not been that good for the Canucks (41-18-8). They have lost their past two home games to playoff-hungry Dallas and Buffalo teams by one-sided margins. The two setbacks mark the first time since early November that they have suffered back-to-back losses in regulation time.
Meanwhile, the Canucks are a modest 5-3-2 in their past 10 games.
“Sometimes, it happens where players are off,” said Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault. “Right now, we’re off. It’s obvious by our production on the ice. It’s obvious by how we’re playing.”
Vigneault is at a loss to explain exactly what has gone wrong. But he identified two recurring themes: A lack of production from the top line of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows and other players who usually play scoring roles, and strong efforts from opposing clubs vying for post-season berths.
“Our top players haven’t been playing like top players and the other thing is, obviously, we’re playing against teams that are desperate and fighting to get in,” said Vigneault.
But he is willing to be patient with the Sedins and the likes of Ryan Kesler. Henrik Sedin has not scored in six games while Daniel has one point in the same period.
Henrik and Daniel, respectively, won the NHL scoring title in each of the past two seasons, but are out of contention this season. Goaltender Cory Schneider, who is slated to start in goal, said the Sedins’ struggles show just how dominant they have been over the past decade.
He figures it won’t be long before the twins start clicking again.
“They never have any panic,” said Schneider. “They never grip the stick too tight. They never let anything get to them.”
Contrary to public perceptions, Henrik Sedin believes the team is “not far off.” Sedin said he and his brother had one of their better games lately in Tuesday’s loss 5-2 loss to Dallas. If they had capitalized on several chances in the first period, it could have been a different story.
He is confident his line will get going offensively soon.
“We’re too good a line not to be scoring,” said Sedin.
He finds the Canucks’ current situation reminiscent of ones that his Swedish team faced before claiming the 2006 Winter Olympic gold medal in Turin and Canada dealt with before capturing Games gold on the same Vancouver ice in 2010.
“If you go through some adversity, it forces you to look at your game and, maybe, make the changes that, maybe, you wouldn’t have made if you just keep winning, keep winning,” said Sedin.
Noting the Canucks were just one point out of first place in the Western Conference before Wednesday’s games, Kesler said players are not concerned.
In one of the many subplots, the Canucks hope to improve a struggling power play that is not getting many opportunities because opposition clubs are remaining disciplined against them.
Another subplot is the strong connection that Canucks players and management have with Winnipeg. Vancouver’s farm team, owned by Winnipeg’s current ownership group, was based in the Manitoba capital before the Jets were revived last June.
Vigneault, now in his sixth season with the Canucks, coached the Manitoba Moose farm club before coming to Vancouver. Meanwhile, Jets coach Claude Noel guided the Moose last season.
A number of Canucks including Kesler, Schneider, Kevin Bieksa, Burrows and Chris Tanev also played in Winnipeg during their minor-league days. Dale Weise is a Winnipeg native and hopes to play against his hometown club after being a healthy scratch in recent games.
“That was one of the first things I looked at when I got picked up on waivers,” said Weise, who joined the Canucks earlier this season from the New York Rangers. “Maybe, about five minutes afterward, I checked the schedule to see when we were going to Winnipeg. I was a little disappointed that we weren’t going there. But I think it’s just pretty cool to play them.”
Another subplot: This is the lone meeting between the clubs this season, and Vancouver is still trying to get a read on the Jets.
“I don’t know a whole lot about them, but they’re playing really well this year,” said Schneider. “Some nights, they don’t generate a lot. Other nights, they put up six or seven goals.”
The Jets are led offensively by Blake Wheeler (54 points), 20-year-old Vancouver native Evander Kane (48) and Dustin Byfuglien (42), a former Canucks’ playoff nemesis during his days with Chicago. In the past 10 games, the Jets have gone 6-2-2, moving into contention for a first-place finish in the Southeast Division and home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
“They’re going to be fired up, coming in,” added Henrik Sedin. “They need to win and we need to match their work ethic.”
Another subplot still to be played out is the number of Jets jerseys that will be in the crowd. The Canucks usually have no trouble getting motivated for teams based north of the 49th parallel, but Winnipeg poses a unique test.
“We’re used to playing the Canadian teams, but Winnipeg is going to be a new experience for us,” said Henrik Sedin. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how many fans they have here.”