Nerdy Guy vs. Naked Eye: Canucks stay afloat minus their captain

The Vancouver Canucks needed to win on Friday, and though they looked as if they will blow a two-goal lead once again, they managed to pull out the shootout victory with some added depth scoring.

This week, Thomas Drance and Dan Murphy look at what a surprisingly successful weekend for the Vancouver Canucks, who looked to be in serious trouble after losing their captain Henrik Sedin to injury.

Dan Murphy (Naked Eye):

Just over a week ago Drance and I were set on a topic for this blog. Vancouver’s fourth line to be exact. Then the Canucks played okay but got dumped in Chicago. Following that game, the Canucks got destroyed in Minnesota. Then I emailed Drance to say we should probably focus on something a little more pressing. Like a Canucks post-mortem perhaps, even though the Canucks were still technically alive. Give it another game, he suggested. Better yet, let’s wait ‘til after the weekend to see how badly this goes.

Well you know how badly it went in Philadelphia. Vancouver played decent, but lost not only the game but also its captain.

*sharpens scalpel for autopsy*

I joked to our editor that I was just going to submit a photo of a smoldering tire fire. That’s how much I thought of the Canucks chances the remainder of the road trip.

Twitter was abuzz that the Canucks could now fully embrace the tank. Tank without Hank! Some were wondering what number Auston Matthews was going to wear for Vancouver next season.

And then something rather surprising happened. The Canucks obviously didn’t share the vision of most (all?).

In Detroit and without Henrik Sedin the Canucks dominated the opening 40 minutes and then went on to win in a shootout. They weren’t quite as tight in Sunrise but still managed to twice erase a one-goal deficit in the second period en route to a shootout loss.

They went from nobody scoring with the captain in the lineup, to everyone chipping in despite the fact that Hank was hurt. Rather inexplicable.

So what gives?

First off, let’s not get ahead of ourselves too much. The Red Wings and Panthers are solid teams but I wouldn’t consider them Beasts of the East.

Secondly, there is zero chance those two results are the start of a meteoric rise up the standings for the Canucks.

That said, they were two impressive performances by a very thin team. Vancouver’s depth at centre was a 19-year old Jared McCann, a 20-year old Bo Horvat, a recently called-up Linden Vey and a self-described journeyman in Adam Cracknell. Not exactly a murderers row. And yet the Canucks were the better team at even strength in both games. Only shabby special teams cost the Canucks a regulation win in Detroit and the extra point in Florida.

Jared McCann was promoted to the top line and has filled in admirably for Hank.

Bo Horvat didn’t score but did show signs of life offensively.

Sven Baertschi came out of hibernation and all of a sudden looks confident with the puck.

And the fourth line that everyone likes to make fun of (except Willie D of course. He likes to play them. A lot.) sure look to me like they is spending more time in the opposition's end than in it’s own.

Again, don’t confuse this with delusions of grandeur. The Canucks have six wins in their last 22 games. The Canucks are in the playoff hunt only because of the terrible division in which they play. The Canucks would no doubt be better off in the future if they finished dead last this season. But the players obviously don’t want dirt to be thrown on them just yet. And their last two games without their captain are proof of that.

Thomas Drance (Nerdy Guy):

Without captain Henrik Sedin in the lineup, the Vancouver Canucks are unlikely to tread water for long.

Sedin, 35, is still an elite NHL playmaker. Vancouver’s first-line centre has also retained his two-way fastball into his mid-30s.

The Canucks are a totally different team when Henrik is on the ice than they are without him. With Henrik, Vancouver outshoots and outscores their opponents by a wide margin. Without him, it’s quite the opposite.

When a lower-body injury forced Henrik to join fellow key Canucks pivot Brandon Sutter in the infirmary this week, the Canucks were all but written off. Vancouver’s season had been headed rapidly towards the skids for month anyway; surely the loss of Henrik during a six-game pre-Christmas road trip would be a death knell.

A funny thing happened on Vancouver’s way to the bottom of the Pacific Division table though. On Friday evening in Detroit, and again on Sunday afternoon in Broward County, the Henrik Sedin-less Canucks put in a pair of excellent performances.

Vancouver nabbed a point in each game, going 1-0-1 (so far) without their captain and top centreman. Perhaps more impressively, the Canucks legitimately managed to control pay solidly well at 5-on-5.

Without Henrik in the lineup this weekend, Vancouver managed to outshoot their opponents 63 to 45 at even-strength. That positive shot differential manifested itself in a 7-3 edge in goals scored at even strength.

One takeaway from that is that these were high event games, which underscores Henrik’s mammoth defensive impact. Henrik isn’t known as a defensive ace, but perhaps his biggest impact is on the rate at which Canucks opponents generate chances and shots at 5-on-5. Controlling the puck in the offensive end doesn’t look much like defensive play, but denying your opponents the puck with an endless cycle game has much of the same effect.

While Henrik was missed defensively, Vancouver’s other forward lines found ways to be successful and generate offence. Between Friday and Saturday’s games, all four of Vancouver’s forward lines managed to outshoot their opponents at even-strength and every line save for the top group (featuring 19-year-old Jared McCann in Henrik’s stead), out-attempted their opponents.

Though the Canucks were essentially unable to find any secondary scoring for months, McCann and Horvat’s lines each manufactured three 5-on-5 goals during this crucial two-game span. Even the Canucks’ power play, which has relied on Henrik to initiate things from the right-side half wall for the past decade, managed to generate looks at a solid clip.

The Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings aren’t quite the puck possession sides that the Tampa Bay Lightning are, so the Canucks’ biggest ‘without Henrik’ test is yet to come.

While it’s obvious that the Canucks can’t afford to be without their captain for any significant length of time if they hope to contend for a playoff berth this season, McCann, Horvat and the club’s depth players have fared extremely and surprisingly well in his absence. If Vancouver’s secondary lines can keep up something approximating this level of play upon Henrik’s return, well, then the club could be cooking with oil.