Losers of two straight, the Vancouver Canucks will need to right their January on the road, starting with tonight's test in Nashville, against the NHL-best Predators.
"We started quicker than I thought we would – but then we've had some tough games lately," said Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins on Monday, referencing both Vancouver's so-so past couple months and their excellent October-to-November. "I think we're probably where I thought, but I thought it would kind of be reversed. I thought we'd go out a little bit slower and then be trending upwards. Now we've kind of flattened off again."
With a 23-14-3 record, the Canucks sit third in the Pacific Division – three games in-hand of second-place L.A. But two lazy losses to Florida and Calgary have kept them idle in the uber-competitive, constantly shifting Western Conference.
"I think we realize how close it is to miss the playoffs," Kevin Bieksa said Monday. "We've done a good job of staying in moment and taking care of the points, especially in the middle half, the dog days of the season.
"We make sure we're up for these games because we know how important the points are."
The Canucks are seventh in the conference, now one point behind the Winnipeg Jets and just two points clear of ninth and the Calgary Flames.
(Puck Drop: 5:00 p.m. PST, Sportsnet Pacific)
The Sedin twins are annual considerations for the NHL's mid-season (not such a) classic, but both Henrik and Daniel were left off this year's ballot, along with other surprise snubs like Montreal's P.K. Subban, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, and Nashville's super rookie Filip Forsberg (among others, I'm sure).
But Vancouver's free-agent find, Radim Vrbata, will represent the team in Columbus – the long invitee from a Canucks team tied for 17th in league scoring.
Vrbata has paced Vancouver so far, with 16 goals through 37 games.
(Former Canuck Roberto Luongo, who made a wet-eyed return to Vancouver last week with the Florida Panthers, was also selected to the All-Star roster, after a so-far Vezina-ish season.)
Maple Leafs call up Nylander
Because nobody was paying enough attention to them recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs went out there and grabbed some headlines this week, with the bringing-over of super-teen William Nylander.
The 18-year-old had been playing his season out with Modo of the Swedish Elite League; he was drafted eighth overall by the Leafs in last June's NHL Entry Draft.
Nylander will continue his season with the Marlies, Toronto's AHL affiliate, for now.
"Modo had done an excellent job with his development through the first half of the year," said Leafs' assistant GM Kyle Dubas, Monday. "Rather than being just staunch and, you know, having him just play out the rest of the year, we wanted to make sure that we were evaluating everything.
"Say, maybe it would be better to have him come over for the second half of the year, get adapted. We like what we've seen from William for the first half of the year, through the World Juniors."
Although he spent pretty much all of Monday telling various Centre of the Universe-area reporters that Nylander would be joining the AHL's Marlies, not the Leafs, Dubas did say he wanted Nylander to get acclimated to North America and its apparently tougher game... that little nugget led Sportsnet to replace 'North America' with 'NHL' (on its website), and led Toronto Star reporter Kevin McGran to wax-on (not wax-off) about how 18-year-olds shouldn't be allowed in the bigs.
The Toronto media has all the patience of a foaming dog, doesn't it?
Michael Hutchinson, Super Rookie
It's been a terrific year for the NHL's freshman class.
Filip Forsberg has been a near point-a-game player for the league's top team, the Nashville Predators. Johnny Gaudreau has been maybe the best forward for the Calgary Flames, only a couple months after mouths and faces were debating whether he was too small to succeed at the highest level. An 18-year-old Aaron Ekblad is in a class all his own, playing like a 35-year-old veteran, often for 20-plus minutes a night, on a contending Florida Panthers team.
Other blueliners like John Klingberg and Damon Severson have chipped into the Calder race at various times.
But Michael Hutchinson has been his own great story. The Winnipeg Jets are in the West's playoff picture and the 24-year-old Hutchinson – a third-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2008 – has gone from Ice Capped AHLer to the top of the table in, from the backup to much-maligned starter Ondrej Pavelec to a league-leader in save percentage and goals-against average.
(Hutchinson has led both those categories during his rookie season, and currently sits second and third in both, with a 0.931 save percentage and a 2.000 GAA through 18 games. His record, 11-4-2, is maybe the most important.)
"Currently, Hutchinson is a long shot for the Calder Trophy. It seems that many a Professional Hockey Writers' Association member have already inscribed Nashville's Filip Forsberg or Florida's Aaron Ekblad on their first-place voting ballot. But those in Winnipeg know he is the key to their success. And Hutchinson doen't need the hardware to prove it.
"'Last year he came in, he practiced and he was great and competed, he played three games for us and he looked exactly like the way these games play now,' (head coach Paul) Maurice said. 'To expect a guy to have as good numbers for as long a period of time just coming into the league, it's a real pleasant surprise for us.'"