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Ebner: Canucks find glimmer of hope in California’s ‘Death Valley’

Los Angeles Kings centre Tyler Toffoli (73) is defended by Vancouver Canucks centre Henrik Sedin (33) in the first period at Staples Center.

Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke calls it "Death Valley." And the Vancouver Canucks know precisely what he's talking about.

The Canucks are on another sojourn through sunny and warm California and it is painful, again. Vancouver this season, home and away, has won a single game in 10 attempts against the three powerful teams from California: Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

And it hasn't been close. The Canucks, going 1-6-3, managing five points out of a possible 20, have been outscored 32-15.

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The good news, as it were, is that after Wednesday night's game in Anaheim, the Canucks can say good riddance to the surfer state – at least until late in the regular-season calendar, when they have three final contests Ducks-Kings-Ducks, all in Vancouver.

The pain goes back a ways. Two springs ago, L.A. ran over Vancouver four games to one in the first round on the way to the Stanley Cup, and then last spring, San Jose swept Vancouver out of the first round.

Two weekends ago, the Kings beat up the Canucks 3-1 and then Vancouver melted down in a 4-3 overtime loss to Anaheim. Some might say there were positive signs in the scrapfest that was a 1-0 loss to L.A. last Monday – and, sure, the Canucks did drive play and display some of head coach John Tortorella's fabled mindset – but stepping back, the underlying advanced stats are not positive. There is some hope, however.

The Canucks rank ninth in the NHL in the category of Fenwick percentage – a reasonable good predictor of future success (measured shots on goal and shots missed, for and against, at even-strength, when games are close).

The bad news for Canucks fans: The Kings are first in Fenwick (just as they were last year, and here is a great analysis of how they do it) and the Sharks are third. But, the glimmer: the Ducks are 12th.

So, even though the Canucks have stunk against California, Vancouver can say, reasonably, they are somewhat in the same league as the trio.

This season is a rude awakening for the Canucks. During the best years in its four-decade history, the team had the great luck to play in what was basically the NHL's weakest division, the woeful Northwest.

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Since Roberto Luongo came to town in 2006, the Canucks won the Northwest six of seven times, won back-to-back Presidents' Trophies, reached the Stanley Cup final and, among individuals, the Sedin twins won back-to-back NHL scoring titles.

Well, teams get older, and luck changes. Welcome to the not-placid Pacific Division, as brutal as the Northwest was lame.

Burke, boss with the woeful Calgary Flames, suffering in the Pacific, called it "Death Valley" in his usual succinct and evocative way, in a piece posted last night from Kevin Allen at USA Today.

The Canucks know it, as we have detailed.

It has been a hump the Canucks can't quite get over, and sometimes aren't even close.

And the frank reality means that, if something doesn't change, the Canucks will be fourth, at best, in the Pacific, which means a wild-card spot (though not guaranteed) and starting the first round of the playoffs on the road.

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The fun in Socal for the Canucks continues tonight at the Pond (er, Honda Center), down the road from Disneyland. The ride does not promise to be magical or enjoyable.

And, oh, by the way, a brief postscript: The Canucks under coach Alain Vigneault in the truncated 2012-13 season were 26-15-7 for 59 points, with 127 goals for and 121 against. Vigneault had to deal with the long absence of Ryan Kesler and benefited from the relatively easy Northwest (11-6-1). This year, under Tortorella, after 47 games, the Canucks are 24-14-9 for 57 points, 123 goals for, 115 against. The Pacific has been hard but the East is easier, Northwest-like (12-5-4). Doesn't seem to have made much difference, the coaching change. Just saying.

And, while we are being all negative … er, factual … what's up with the Sedins?

They start their new four-year, $28-million (U.S.) deal next season, and seem to be announcing they cannot play successfully with anyone but the currently injured Alexandre Burrows. That seems like something of an Achilles heel.

In the 18 games (before Wednesday) since the scrappy Quebecker broke his jaw, Daniel Sedin has three goals, and Henrik Sedin has two.

So, to recap: five goals from the team's presumed best two players in 18 games. Since nothing's working, and Tortorella has stooped to trying 24-year-old journeyman Zac Dalpe with the twins, what of Zack Kassian, who shows more and more promise these days. Just saying.

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More


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