Remember when the Olympics were going on? That is so February. It's time to Fight in March. The Canucks, who have travelled 1.4 million miles (or kilometers?) on the longest road trip in NHL history, are back in Nationwide to face off with the Jackets. I can't confirm if most of those statements are actually true, but they've been on the road for weeks. The Canucks are 4-4 on this epic roady, and lost the last game before the Olympic break 6-2 to Minnesota.
The Canucks have a few players who probably don't feel like they've been on the road though... the most notable of which are Ryan Kesler, who played an amazing series with the U.S., and Roberto Luongo -- he went 5-0 with an impressive 1.76 GAA/.976 SV stat line. Oh yeah, and he has a big gold medal. He is being rewarded with a nice comfortable bench this evening.
Like most teams competing down the stretch, the Canucks are dealing with injuries -- the blue line is still banged up and missing Bieksa and Mitchell. However, they are starting to get some help. Pavol Demitra, who banged a would-be equalizer wrist shot off the post against Luongo in the closing moments of regulation against Team Canada, is being rewarded for his miss with a promotion to the second line. After missing the first 47 games of the season, Demitra gives an already impressive scoring attack even more bite. And Ryan Johnson, the fourth line center known for his forechecking and defensive zone faceoff prowess is expected back -- perhaps as early as tonight -- after healing some broken bones in his foot.
For those Jackets that remained in Columbus, Noel has been running them through a lot of up-tempo practices and putting more of his personal stamp on the playing style and strategy of the team. Tonight will go a long way in showing how successful those efforts have been.
First Line: The back-up is back in. For the fifth consecutive game, the Jackets will see the other guy. Andrew Raycroft will be minding the pipes in Nationwide this evening. He won his last decision in Columbus, but only after his team scrambled back from a multi-goal deficit. He hasn't seen much action this season and will be especially vulnerable with a weakened defensive corps and a few weeks of rust. The Jackets will be pushing for more offense from the points and if they can get some pucks to the net early, there should be some juicy rebounds to pounce upon.
Second Line: We owe these guys. The Canucks won the last game on a circus goal that fluttered over Mason's head. Mason knows it. The team knows it. The fans know it. The Jackets should have earned two points from that game and revenge will be a powerful motivator tonight. And oh yeah, they're nine points out of the playoff race.
Third Line: Three Amigos will be key. Sadly, this could be the last time we see Torres in a Jackets sweater -- at the very least, for the balance of this season. I just want to go on record saying that I think letting him go is a mistake. More on that later. Regardless, the second line is going to be crucial tonight. Voracek and Brassard should be healthy and well-rested, and playing with plenty of confidence from Noel. Nash is going to be exhausted and I would be surprised if we can get a lot of production out of that line tonight. Brassard will likely be taking faceoffs vs. Kesler, but Kesler is also likely dragging from the exhaustion of the Olympics. The Canucks don't have much defensive skill past the first pairing and I think this line can exploit that.
Fourth Line: Stay tough - and focused - in the third. As I said above, this game will provide a good barometer as to where the non-Olympians are from a conditioning and focus standpoint. The last game against the Canucks was lost from a lack of focus. Vancouver is a real good - and physical - squad and the Jackets will need some luck of the Irish to get a win (via pre-game sweaters) if you believe in that type of thing. If you don't, then you can still agree that maintaining the right pace of play and pressuring the shaky defensive corps with sixty minutes of hard-hitting forechecking will do a lot of good.