When Ryan Kesler missed the first dozen games of the year, the Vancouver Canucks fared well – but the Sedins did not. On Saturday night, the first of 16 games in 29 days in this mad month of March, the Canucks again were without their star second-line centre, and the team fared well – and the Sedins led the way.
One game is not a trend. But it looked good for the Canucks against the Los Angeles Kings, winning 5-2 at home against the red-hot visitors, and for the Sedins in particular. They battled the Kings's first line of Anze Kopitar and company all night long, and often looked great doing it, at times so dominating in puck possession it was like a skills clinic.
"Every time you go up against the top line, it's something you look upon as a big challenge," said Henrik after the game. "A lot of times it's way more fun to play these games, when you know you've got to beat your line."
Why it matters is the Sedins have to soar if Vancouver is to make it through this month without Kesler. In the first 12 games this year, Vancouver went 8-2-2, feasting on feeble Northwest Division opponents. Even so, the Sedins struggled, the two twins notching just 18 points in those 12 games. Henrik didn't score a single goal.
Team president Mike Gillis tried to excuse the twins, saying it was about the lack of training camp, and how the Sedins's precision game needed time to find rhythm. And it seemed like a slight blasphemy to note that the back-to-back scoring champs (Henrik in 2009-10 and Daniel in 2010-11) might have lost a step at 32. But a true fact was the Sedins faced the stiffest competition opponents could throw at them, the first line, a squad Kesler would normally square off against, he of the 2010-11 Selke, the NHL's best defensive forward.
The results were obvious when Kesler returned. In the seven games he was back, the Sedins together put up 20 points. So from 1.5-points-a-game in their first dozen, without Kesler, the Sedins nearly doubled that rate of offence, springing to nearly three per game with him around, freeing the Sedins to play against lesser players.
On Saturday night, the Sedins battled the Kopitar line, one that Kesler had been matched against last spring when the Kings trounced the Canucks in five games in the first round of the playoffs, en route to the Stanley Cup. The Sedins were just a little shaky at first on Saturday. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said Kopitar had the upper hand early and then he tapped his biggest stars, telling them it was the matchup he wanted, the twins versus Kopitar. "They needed to get it done," said Vigneault after the game, "and they did."
The Sedins came away with three points in the game – and the Canucks with the win. And while they were mostly matched against Kopitar (who plays with L.A. captain Dustin Brown and Justin Williams), the Sedins scoresheet impact came against other lines. The first goal of the night, Colin Fraser at centre for L.A., Henrik had the second assist. In the second period, the score locked at two, Henrik and Daniel burst out on a two-on-one, leaving behind Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, facing down only Rob Scuderi, and Henrik popped it cross-ice to Daniel, who cracked a low slapper past Jonathan Quick's glove side.
On Friday, Gillis observed: "In this league right now, you're one injury away from being a .500 hockey team if you think you're a good team."
The Canucks are not, obviously, the same team without Kesler, but are now 9-2-2 without him, and were 2-3-2 with him (granted, those seven games came against mostly stiffer competition). But if Canucks can handle the Cup champions, who had arrived in Vancouver having won seven of eight, then maybe the month of March isn't as bad as it looked when it was revealed a couple days ago Kesler has a fracture in his right foot. And maybe the Sedins at 32 are still nearly as remarkable as ever, even if their point production probably will never match the heights of their Art Ross years.
"To see them cycle the puck," said Mason Raymond, "make their plays, and their patience" – Raymond added emphasis on patience – "it's phenomenal."
It sparks the whole team.
"It's fun to watch," said Raymond. "The crowd gets in it – you can hear the 'wows' in the crowd. As a team, as a player, you feed off it. And those are the momentum swings that we like to use and generate more often."