*This was originally posted on White Cover Magazine…
Win or lose. Neither of those words seem to matter against the Winnipeg Jets.
I mean, of course they do. But if the Jets make the playoffs, they could lose in four or win in seven, and the result won’t diminish what will certainly be the greatest atmosphere in the NHL’s opening round history, at the first playoff game hosted in Winnipeg since 1996. Just like, when you play the Jets, you can come away with a win and you’ll pay for it in throbbing bruises. Motrin pain. Basically, the result isn’t the whole story – sorry, Vince Lombardi.
Vancouver won 5-2 on Tuesday night, ratcheting up the box score with Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson on the bench for the final two tallies. And the Canucks moved two points clearer of the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames, but their double-you doesn’t turpentine the almost overwhelming wave attack of Winnipeg.
You can eat a 50-ounce steak, for sure. But you’ll pay for it in the hotel room.
I was watching that game last night from way up high, in one of the 500-level suites at Rogers Arena. And all I could think was, ‘This is like Iceland in D2.’ And then I thought of that quote from the movie – “They’re bigger. They’re faster. They’re stronger… They have… more facial hair.” (Averman, why’d you have to be limited to only a trilogy?)
Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa poked fun at the Jets before the game, telling Canucks TV that – if you were to listen to the pundits and predictors – Winnipeg must be the biggest, fastest, most physical team he’d ever seen.
And credit to Vancouver, because they answered back – not just on the score sheet, after they fell behind 2-0, but also with the body.
The Canucks took some shots, but Winnipeg took them, too. There was no bullying, and it was great to see the refs put the whistles away when the pace picked up – specifically, on a Jacob Trouba half-interference on Alex Burrows in the first period. Could it have been called? Sure, but Burrows did lean into Trouba looking for the hit, and Myers obliged. It’s a physical game; let them get it out of their system, and penalize them if it gets out of hand. There were other instances, where some defender would throw a forward to the ice, and I guess you could rule it a hold or a roughing, or something. But it’s hockey – holds and roughing kind of go in-hand with the game’s nature, on reserve at least.
Both games at Rogers Arena this year between the Jets and Canucks have been thoroughly entertaining wars, tight contests that have kept the crowd buzzing, humming, and vibrating.
And it looked like Winnipeg was just meant to win last night’s game. Vancouver had been too fortunate lately, with that uncharacteristically clutch performance over Los Angeles on Saturday. It would have been totally believable to see Jiri Tlusty or Blake Wheeler shovel the game-winner home sometime in the first 20 to 30 minutes. After embarrassing losses to Columbus, Arizona, and Buffalo in the past couple weeks, we’ve just come to expect this from the Canucks – that they can look like contenders on the road, but like less-than-pretenders when they’re supposed to ride neutral to a win.
These teams match up well, though. And I’m surprised, because you’d think St. Louis or L.A. or Anaheim would be more Winnipeg’s style. But instead, guys like Vrbata and Weber and the Sedin Twins – finesse players, as stereotypers would put it – thrived on Tuesday. That’s what it looked like from the 5th floor of Rogers Arena, at least. I could be wrong; it’s easy to miss minute details when you’re watching a game live, not to mention when you’re watching it live from a seat on the roof.
But make no mistake, please – Radim Vrbata was the difference last night.
His first point was a perfect, patient forehand-to-backhand, cross-ice pass to a waiting Chris Higgins, whose one-time wrist shot squeaked through the arm and torso of Hutchinson.
His second point was the sort of mark he was signed specifically for – a play off the wall, where he read the puck’s bouncing and tapped it off his skate to his stick, came in on Hutchinson and, instead of firing it right away, went wide and out-waited the goalie, before he raised it up and over the rookie’s outstretched arms.
It was the sort of goal only true goal-scorers score can score, or know how to score. Vrbata has a nose for the net – Higgins called him an “assassin” last night – and Hans Gruber’s ruthlessness. He really, truly makes you wonder, “Why were we clinging to Ryan Kesler again?” Because with Vrbata and Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa (and Jared McCann, acquired in the trade with Anaheim) brought in to plug the hole, the Canucks have more than made up for whatever the Old No. 17 was bringing to the party.
Vrbata is Mikael Samuelsson, but with obviously a higher, more self-sufficient upside. The most impressive thing about Vrbata’s season hasn’t been the way he’s seamlessly meshed with the Sedins – he didn’t pick up an assist on Weber’s powerplay goal last night, but he was a major player in the two-minute drill’s awesomeness. It’s actually been how he’s fluttered up and down the lineup, basically doing whatever job Willie Desjardins has needed him to do.
I think the Canucks’ playoff hopes – for success in the playoffs, not just making them – will ultimately depend on Vrbata connecting with the Sedin Twins, sort of like how Samuelsson was there for the big goals and the top-corner snipes at the right time(s). But he’s been terrific on all three lines, and has buoyed the often inconsistent offensive output from Chris Higgins and Nick Bonino, his linemates on Tuesday.
But Vancouver needs a true first line. And they only have one with Vrbata in the top three.
He’s also much better defensively than I think a lot of Vancouverites assumed he would be. We’re shallow like that – somebody’s European and known for their shot, and you assume he’s just going to seagull and hang around the other goalie all the time. But Vrbata’s as much a puckhandler and a playmaker (a game-manager) as he is a scorer, and his 200-foot game is Sedin-like in how he controls and puck and push it up the ice.
But it’s funny, how fast hockey changes day-to-day – and especially how it changes in the Western Conference. Sure, in the East, the Ottawa Senators came from 14 points back to leapfrog the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. But once they started, you could see them and Andrew Hammond coming. Like, a mile away.
Out West, every loss is a four-point crusher. You don’t just lose a game, you lose all your ground. When it was 2-0 Winnipeg last night, I was sitting there wondering how the Canucks would hold off the Kings and the Flames with nine games to go, with Chicago, St. Louis, and Nashville on their schedule.
Now, with Vancouver’s win, the Canucks feel closer to catching Anaheim than they are to missing the postseason, and it’s the Jets everyone’s suddenly worried about. Will they really be able to beat both Los Angeles and Calgary between now and Round 1? They certainly have the ability, but because of the way the Wild Card is, they’re gonna have to keep winning and scoreboard watch the Kings, the Flames, and the Canucks. Or else, any of those Pacific bubble teams could merge into their lane and push them off the highway.
But also, then again, it’s just as easy to wonder about Vancouver – what if they slack off and Calgary of L.A. push ahead? The Canucks should be a Wild Card team, but they still have another game against Winnipeg and have to run the gauntlet through the superior Central division, with a very unforgiving nine games remaining.
So basically, let’s not get carried away with anything.