Tony Gallagher wrote an article after the Canucks downed the Maple Leafs 4-1 on Saturday criticizing the effort from the Canucks and wondering how much longer they could play lackadaisical hockey and expect to win. He came just short of accusing the Canucks of playing with the Maple Leafs like a cat with a mouse. There's an inherent expectation in Gallagher's article that the Canucks need to build proper habits now in the regular season so that the habits are properly ingrained come playoff time. Never mind that it's only December, the Canucks should be playing with playoff intensity now.
I'm used to hearing the opposite from Canucks fans and media. I'm used to hearing after every loss to a supposed "inferior" team, The Canucks should be able to beat these guys! or These are the games you have to win! and my favorite Good teams don't lose to bad teams!
The fact is that good teams do lose to bad teams: even the worst team in the league wins a few games and by definition that means they beat "superior" teams. But the complaint has been especially acute amongst Canucks fans. The theory is that the Canucks continually play down to their opponent's level and lose games they should win. Witness the 2005-06 Canucks, who lost all 4 of their meetings with the last-place St. Louis Blues, finishing 3 points out of a playoff spot. Their inability to beat the worst team in the league became the story of that season.
I've even heard the complaint in reference to last season, as some of my more cynical friends pointed to 2 losses against the Edmonton Oilers, the team that finished 12 points behind Toronto for last in the NHL. So is this the case? Did the Canucks play worse against lesser opponents, squandering points that might have put them in a better position in the playoffs?
The Canucks finished the 2009-10 season with a 49-28-5 record, for 103 points out of a possible 164. That gives them a point percentage of 0.628. This tied them for 5th in the NHL behind Washington, San Jose, Chicago, and Phoenix. Their record against teams that missed the playoffs was 25-15-1, for 51 points out of a possible 82. Their point percentage against teams that missed the playoffs was 0.622. Their point percentage against teams that made the playoffs was 0.634.
While not a major difference, it is true that the Canucks had a worse point percentage against teams that missed the playoffs when, by all rights, they should have a better point percentage against such teams. So it's true that the Canucks may have played down to their opponent's level last season. A few more wins against the lesser lights of the NHL would have put them within striking range of 2nd or 1st in the Conference, meaning a better playoff seeding and the possibility of not meeting the Blackhawks in the second round.
So what is happening this season? Are the Canucks continuing the pattern? Will the "game-playing," as Gallagher puts it, hurt the Canucks down the road, perhaps preventing them from a higher finish?
The answer, thus far, is no. As of today, the Canucks have a record of 19-8-4, collecting 42 out of a possible 62 points, a percentage of 0.677. Their percentage against teams who are currently sitting under the playoff bar is 0.737 and against teams currently in the playoffs, 0.583. The Canucks are beating the teams they should beat, even if it isn't with the style, panache, or intensity that Gallagher would like to see. Instead, the Canucks have been calm, collected, and zen-like in their approach to such games, efficiently getting the job done. It's actually been enjoyable to see the Canucks win such games without the intensity that has seemed so necessary in the past. Indeed, it seems that these games that the fanbase feels should be easy victories have been, well, easy.
More concerning is their point percentage against the rest of the NHL, which sits well below last season's excellent pace. Tonight's battle against the Red Wings for second place in the Conference will be a good test of their mettle, as will games at the end of the month against the Conference-leading Flyers and Stars. In-between, I expect they will bring their miniature rakes to work against the Blue Jackets and Oilers, coolly and calmly winning the games they're supposed to win.