One of the hottest teams in the NHL, the Stanley Cup finalists of Vancouver, come into the Bell Centre on Thursday for the first game of a five-game road trip. The Canucks have won seven of their last eight games, are 8-2 in their last 10 and 10-3 in their last 13.
The Canucks have been a powerful offensive club this season. Their 89 goals is tied for the second highest total in the league behind the Blackhawks and Flyers who both have 93. They have the best power play in the league, clicking at almost 26 percent. Their penalty kill isn’t awful either, killing off 86 percent of their man down situations, sixth in the league. The Habs remain second in the league with an 89.5 percent success rate.
One of the main questions surrounding Vancouver continues to be their goaltending, although they’re coming off a 6-0 shutout of Colorado in which Roberto Luongo was injured in the second period when he took a Gabriel Landeskog shot in the thoat. He was replaced by Corey Schneider, who blanked the Avalanche the rest of the way while Luongo watched from the bench. The 32-year-old Montreal native has made the trip, however, and could start against the Habs.
Luongo hasn’t played as much this season as in the past due to a combination of injury and coach Alain Vigneualt giving Schneider more starts after Luongo struggled in the early going. Schneider has been the better of the two goalies so far with a 2.02 GAA and a .934 save pct. But Luongo (2.22, .899) has the big contract and it’s possible he’ll get the nod from Vigneault in his hometown if he’s feeling better. In 26 career games against the Habs, Luongo has a 9-11-5 record, two shutouts and a .923 save percentage. Many of those games were played while he was with Florida and the Islanders earlier in his career.
Another familiar name to Montreal fans, Chris Higgins, recently recorded his 200th NHL point and is also on the trip, but his status, too. is uncertain. Higgins didn’t play against the Avs due to what one source called a staph infection in his foot which caused swelling. Higgins had been playing well on an effective all-American line with Ryan Kesler at centre and David Booth on wing. But Booth isn’t on the trip, having been kneed Tuesday by Colorado’s Kevin Porter, who got five and a game and reportedly meets with Brendan Shanahan on Thursday. Booth is expected to miss at least month with an MCL injury.
So what had been the all-American second line had Canadian Mason Raymond on one wing and Dane Jannik Hansen on the other after Booth went down. If Higgins can’t go on Thursday, moving Raymond up from the third line again could mean the Canucks depth at forward will be stretched somewhat.
Regardless, it is their top line that requires attention. Daniel Sedin his brother Henrik and Alex Burrows continue to be one of the best threesomes in the game. Daniel did the damage against the Avs with a hat trick. He leads the Canucks with 12 goals and 21 assists and has eight points in his last four games (although he’s never been particularly effective against the Canadiens; he has only two goals in 16 career games vs. the Habs). Henrik has eight goals and 22 assists on the season. Burrows is heating up with five points in his last four games and has a team-best plus-12 rating.
Yet another familiar name to Habs fans, Max Lapierre, leads the Canucks in hits with 80 and has characteristically been involved in some controversial moments lately. He checked Colorado defenceman Ryan Wilson face first into the endboards on his first shift of Tuesday’s game, ending Wilson’s evening and escaping a penalty or, apparently any other punishment. Two nights earlier, he fought against the Flames Matt Stajan, who was avenging a late hit Lapierre made on him two months ago. It was only Stajan’s second career fight.
On the blueline, Dan Hamhiuis and Kevin Bieksa are a formidable shutdown duo. Alex Edler runs the show and is fourth in scoring among all NHL defencemen with 20 points (4g, 16a). His partner Sami Salo, who’s been relatively healthy, is right behind Hamhuis’ plus-9 for the top rating among the Canucks d-men with a plus-8. Aaron Rome and Keith Ballard, who can both have problems in their own end, are the third pair. Losing Christian Ehrhoff to the Sabres in free agency robbed the Canucks of their great blue line depth from last year.
It’s uncertain how the Canucks’ bottom six will look if Higgins can’t play, but we’ll pencil him in on the second line and see how things go. Rookie call-up Bill Sweat will play his first NHL game against the Habs.
Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows
Jannik Hansen, Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins
Mason Raymond, Cody Hodgson, Dale Weise
Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, Bill Sweat
Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa
Alex Edler, Sami Salo
Aaron Rome, Keith Ballard