By Allan Muir
It's fair to say that all eyes will be on teen sensation Tomas Hertl tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern time as his San Jose Sharks visit the Vancouver Canucks.
Not that anyone expects the NHL's leading scorer -- let that one sink in for a moment -- to repeat his four-goal performance from Tuesday night, or to attempt anything as bold and exciting as the between-the-legs move he executed for his final tally against the Rangers, but his Jagr-esque style and joyful play make it seem as though something memorable could happen at any time. And as the league's new, shiny toy, Hertl's the must-watch of the moment.
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But in the big picture, there's a more compelling angle to this contest. A glance at the standings reveals that the John Tortorella era is off to a good start in Vancouver. Yet, his team's record is deceiving.
Sure, 3-1 is a lot better place to be than, say, 1-3, but no one's kidding themselves about the quality of Vancouver's early play. The Canucks have fattened up on the NHL's version of junk food -- Edmonton, New Jersey, Calgary -- and they needed to come from behind to finish off the last two meals.
Six points is six points, and nobody asks how you got them at the end of the season. Just how many you got. But the only game the Canucks have played so far that told us anything about who they are as a team was their opening night tilt against the Sharks. And outside of an exceptional performance by Roberto Luongo, that 4-1 loss was all about penalties and turnovers and all the other little mistakes that end up in the back of the net when one team is simply overmatched by another.
The Canucks weren't able to handle the depth that the Sharks had at their disposal, and while that's been a common problem for San Jose's opponents this season, it's a deeper concern in Vancouver where they haven't been up to the challenge in their last eight consecutive meetings, including last spring's playoffs. Maybe it's just a case of one team having another's number. Or maybe that opening loss suggests that Vancouver's seemingly hot start is just an illusion built on the back of fortunate scheduling.
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To be fair, there have been positive signs. What the Canucks have done well to this point is push the pace, a clear reflection of Tortorella's intent to dictate, rather than react to, the flow of the game. They've been aggressive on the forecheck, they've committed to shot blocking -- yes, even the Sedins, though they've yet to be credited with one by the stats-keepers -- and they seem comfortable with his "fluid" approach to line management.
Torts believes in a meritocracy. Play hard, play well, play more. So far, Alex Edler and Daniel Sedin are up over two minutes per game from last season's totals. Henrik Sedin is playing about 90 seconds more. If the team's best players are doing enough to earn that extra time, they must be playing well.
But not all of Vancouver's stars are firing on all cylinders. Outside of the opener, Luongo has been OK at best, his 2.64 GAA ranking 20th in the league while his save percentage resides about 20 points south of where it needs to be. Ryan Kesler is struggling with new responsibilities under Tortorella's system and, outside of a dazzling nine-shot effort in the Edmonton game, he's looked slow and ineffective.
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A new coach always requires an adjustment period, especially when his style demands such an abrupt change of course. The Canucks, then, deserve a little leeway as they try to find their way under Tortorella.
But that doesn't give them a pass on this test. If their losing streak against the Sharks reaches nine, it won't matter what Hertl does tonight. There'll be a bigger story tomorrow in Vancouver.