The Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs square off for the second time this season, Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. Round 1 was a bloodbath that saw the Maple Leafs expose the Canucks’ biggest weakness — one that, until corrected, will prevent the Canucks from having any kind of meaningful success this season.
The 7-3 drubbing at the hands of the Maple Leafs on Thursday was the eighth time the Canucks have allowed five or more goals in a game this season. The only team with a worse goals-against average are the Ottawa Senators, who have the worst record in the NHL. And while the Canucks have given their fans glimpses of hope, a four-game win streak, and flashes of strong play from their top players, this team has really only shown one thing consistently this season: An inability to defend, particularly off the rush.
In the loss to the Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Canucks allowed 17 scoring chances off the rush, more than any team has allowed in a game this season. Four of those rush chances resulted in goals, which is more than two teams, Dallas and New Jersey, have allowed all season.
The Canucks’ inability to slow teams down is their biggest performance-based issue right now.
Going back to the start of the 2017-18 season, no team has allowed more goals off the rush in its first 14 games than the 19 Vancouver has allowed this season.
Only the 2018-19 Detroit Red Wings allowed more rush chances against (116) this deep into a season than the Canucks have this season (115). That Red Wings team went on to finish 28th place.
The Canucks currently rank last in the NHL in the amount of rush scoring chances they allow per game, 8.2, and goals allowed off the rush, 1.36.
So, let’s look at four key areas to identify the root of the problem. Goaltending, personnel, coaching and execution.
Let’s get this out of the way: it’s not goaltending that is costing the Canucks defensively. When isolating goaltending performance (actual goals against average vs. expected goals against average) from team defence (expected goals against average), the Canucks sit 21st in the league. Their expected goals against, a direct reflection of team defence, is last in the NHL at 3.54 goals-against per game.
Captain Bo Horvat hit the nail on the head after Thursday’s loss to Toronto saying, “It’s not our goaltender’s fault. We’re giving up too many grade-A opportunities.” J.T. Miller echoed his captain’s sentiments stating, “We hung our goalies out to dry. I think we can be way better.”
The Canucks lost some key defensive contributors in the off-season in Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev. Markstrom covered up some of the defensive warts that are proving so costly this season.
In 2019-20, the Canucks ranked 29th in rush chances against per game with 6.8, and 24th in rush goals against with 0.77. Not quite as bad as this season, but still not the type of numbers you typically see from a team that went on to win multiple playoff rounds. Like Markstrom, the Canucks’ best defensive defenceman last season, Tanev, also left via free agency. Vancouver wasn’t a great defensive team with Tanev and they are proving to be a worse one without him.
I think Travis Green is a good coach and I think he understands what he has in his group. Part of the reason the Canucks allowed so many rush chances and goals against last season was due to how they looked to create offence.
Vancouver did an excellent job cycling the puck and turning offensive zone possessions into goals. At even-strength, no team scored more goals off the cycle than Vancouver. In order to maximize the strengths of the team and create so many goals by working the puck in the offensive zone, the Canucks often had three or four skaters playing below the hash marks in the offensive zone. If a puck was turned over or a battle was lost, the opposing team would often have a chance to move up ice quickly and create off the rush.
In the end, Vancouver scored more by cycling than they allowed off the rush so this strategy seemed sound enough. This season, the Canucks are still giving up the rush chances we would expect, but the issue has been compounded by a concerning degree of disconnect between the forwards and defencemen.
The game against the Maple Leafs was a microcosm of the defensive issues that have plagued Vancouver for much of the season and it started early. Here are just a couple of examples.
Less than three minutes into the game a failed pinch at the blue line leaves J.T. Miller to defend Auston Matthews. Guess who won that battle?
In the second period, Adam Gaudette gets beat on a stretch pass up the middle of the ice. Odd-man rush, goal.
There were plenty more examples like this, but for brevity’s sake we’ll move on.
The Canucks are going to give up more rush chances than most teams. Partially because of how they play and partially because they are not a fast team. They can not compound the issue by lacking in execution and details.
Perhaps some of this is fatigue related, both mental and physical. After all, Vancouver started its season playing 13 games in 21 days including four sets of back-to-backs. Opportunities for the Canucks to fine-tune their game with practice time have been few and far between. However, these defensive issues were real with this team last season. The Canucks just did a better job of hiding them thanks to the Vezina-calibre play of Markstrom and of course, bubble Thatcher Demko.
Goaltending has been fine this season. With the departure of key players, this year’s Canucks simply aren’t as good as last year’s Canucks. That was a team that performed in the playoffs beyond what it would likely be capable of over a long stretch of time — say, a regular season.
Despite what some fans in Vancouver might want to hear right now, I’m not hanging much of the blame for the Canucks’ current plight on Travis Green. The blue line isn’t good enough and it shows most nights. I do believe this Canucks team is likely better than it’s shown so far, but not better than the unrealistic expectations some set for the group at the start of the season.
One thing is for sure, until this team finds a way to limit the inordinate number of dangerous rush chances it’s allowing, it will lose far more often than it wins. Trying to limit the Leafs to less than the 17 they had on Thursday is a good starting point.
Berrettini ends Murray’s comeback at Queen’s
The 34-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion, playing in his first singles tournament on grass for three years, could not handle the ferocious pace of Berrettini as he slid to defeat.
Murray eased past Benoit Paire in his opening match on Tuesday but world number nine Berrettini was too big a step up.
Berrettini’s huge first serve and forehand did most of the damage but the Italian also showed plenty of silky touch on the slick lawns to register his first career win over Murray.
Berrettini, 25, finished the match off with a powerful hold of serve, banging down four massive first serves before sealing victory with a clubbing forehand winner.
He faces British number one Dan Evans in the quarter-final after Evans beat Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.
Murray, a five-time winner of the traditional warm-up event but now ranked 124 after long battles with hip injuries including resurfacing surgery in 2019, has been handed a wildcard for the Wimbledon championships.
Apart from a slight groin niggle, Murray said he was reasonably happy with his condition, considering this was only his third Tour-level tournament of the year.
“I think obviously I need to improve,” Murray told reporters. “I actually felt my movement was actually quite good for both of the matches. My tennis today was not very good today. That’s the thing that I’ll need to improve the most.
“I felt like today that that sort of showed my lack of matches.”
Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez, who won the singles title in 2019 and the doubles alongside Murray, was beaten 6-2 6-3 by Canada‘s Denis Shapovalov.
(Reporting by Martyn HermanEditing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar)
Be Like the King of the North Division and Develop Skills
It’s been a year unlike no other for Canadian hockey teams, with COVID-19 travel restrictions forcing the creation of a new NHL division made up entirely of Canadian teams. The previous generation of NHL hockey was known as the “Dead Puck Era” because referees tolerated slowing down the game with clutching and grabbing.
The leading scorers today score in jaw-dropping fashion and routinely pull off stickhandling dangles that were unimaginable until only recently. The Canadian team that will win the North Division will be the one with the most skill.
Here are the training aids that will help you develop your skills all year long.
Innovators like HockeyShot Canada make “passers” so that players can develop pinpoint accuracy and the soft hands necessary to cradle and control a pass when it lands on your stick. The high-quality rubber bands return the puck with the same force which passed it, so you can give yourself one-timers or work on accuracy.
Whether you’re on a two-on-one, sending a breakout pass from the defensive zone, or holding down the blue line on the power play, every positional player needs to pass accurately.
A player is lucky to get a few shots on net each game, and they can’t let them go to waste. Until recently, players needed to rent ice in the off-season to practice their shots in realistic game-like conditions.
Now, players can use shooting pads at their home that let pucks glide as they do on real ice. Shooting is perhaps the one skill that requires the most repetition because one inch can be the difference between going bar-down and clanking one wide off the post.
Practice your quick release and accuracy and develop an arsenal of shots, including wrist shots, slapshots, one-timers, and more. The more tools in your tool kit, the deadlier a sniper you’ll be.
Having the puck on your stick is a responsibility, and you don’t want to cough it up to the other team and waste a scoring chance or lose possession. The ability to stickhandle helps you bide time until a teammate is open, so you can pass them the puck and continue attacking.
If you’re on a breakaway, you may want to deke the goalie rather than shoot if your hands are silky enough. Develop stickhandling skills, and you’ll keep goalies and opponents guessing – being unpredictable helps make a sniper’s job easier.
Of course, you also need to handle the puck in your own zone without causing a turnover. Stickhandling is a crucial skill in all areas of the ice.
When the coach sends you over the board, you need to be prepared for whatever comes your way. Maybe you’ll get the puck in the slot or somewhere else, but when it’s playoffs, you always need to be ready. The Kings of the North Division have all of the above skills and more, and you can too if you practice all year.
Australia swim trials calendar shift to reap Tokyo rewards
Australia broke with tradition to hold its swimming trials just six weeks before the start of the 2020 Olympics and former world champion Giaan Rooney said the move could reap rich rewards in Tokyo after disappointments at London and Rio.
Australia has typically held its trials up to six months before an Olympics but that gap has been drastically cut this year with swimmers vying for Tokyo spots this week in Adelaide.
Rooney, who won individual world titles at Fukuoka and Montreal and a relay gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Australia is gearing up for a much improved Games after its swimmers flopped at Rio and London.
“I think we needed to make it work,” she told Reuters. “The shift started about a year ago to bring the trials into line with the rest of the world and qualify five or six weeks before.
“In sport and swimming, six months is a long time,” Rooney added. “From a coaching perspective, it’s much better to know you have chosen the team in form.”
After winning five gold medals at Sydney 2000 and seven in Athens, the Australian team was rocked by accusations of disruptive behaviour by some of its top sprinters at the 2012 Olympics.
Australia won just one gold medal in the London pool and three in Rio five years ago.
Australia knew something had to be done if it was to close the gap on the powerful Americans and moving the trials is part of the strategy.
“I think it’s to make your swimmers more resilient to change,” Rooney said.
“In the USA they get to race every week regardless of illness or breakups and under all circumstances. Nothing rattles them.
“Australia doesn’t have that racing continuity. This is about making sure you are prepared for anything. I think our swimmers are more resilient than they have been in the past decade, COVID is part of this.”
Rooney said there might even be an “upside” for Australia with the Olympics postponed by a year due to the global health crisis, with the emergence of swimmers like teenager Kaylee McKeown, who broke the women’s 100m backstroke world record on Sunday.
“We are now talking about athletes who are not only going to make the Olympics but are medal chances,” Rooney said.
“We wouldn’t have been talking about her this time last year. She might not have been ready for a position on the team. She is now a legitimate gold medal chance in Tokyo once she gets there.”
For all her confidence about Australia’s performance in Tokyo, Rooney was wary of making predictions about a gold rush for her compatriots.
“I think this will be a more successful Olympics for us than Rio in the pool but individual goal medals will still be difficult to come by,” said the 38-year-old.
“The biggest challenge is to make the jump from minor medals to gold.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)