Jan 24, 2002
With snow falling for the past couple of days in beautiful Vancouver, one couldn't help but think it was Christmas time all over again. You won't hear any complaints from the Vancouver Canucks or their fans. It is now clear what Santa left under the Canuck tree this year: their game. During a hair pulling first half for the Canucks, not player, coach nor fan could figure out exactly where the A-game had gone. It wasn't at General Motors Place. It wasn't at Burnaby 8-Rinks, the Canucks full time practice facility. It certainly wasn't packed away in their luggage, waiting to emerge at each visiting rink along the schedule. No one, in a million years would have thought that Jolly Ol' St. Nick was holding it ransom at the North Pole. Come December 25th, Santa delivered the game everyone in Vancouver had been searching for. It hasn't been lost since.
The Canucks battled out another win tonight against the Dallas Stars, an impressive 4-2 victory powered by a veteran who has 611 games in the National Hockey League, and a rookie playing in his first game in the league. The road win improved the Canucks record to 9-3-0-1 in their 13 games since the Christmas break. Winger Trent Klatt led the charge with one goal and one assist, while rookie goaltender Alex Auld stopped 20 of 22 shots in the first game of his N.H.L. career. When playing the Dallas Stars, getting the lead is the key to success and the Canucks did just that as Klatt set up Bryan Helmer for his second of the season. Klatt carried the puck as Helmer jumped up and joined him on a two on one rush heading in to the Stars zone. With his head up all the way, Klatt waited until both the defenceman and goalie Ed Belfour committed slightly before sliding a perfect pass across the top of the crease and Helmer made no mistake into the open net. The Canucks took that momentum and pressured the Stars in every area on the ice, showing the in-your-face style that is so paramount to their success. Just under four minutes later, Brendan Morrison fought off Jamie Langenbruner right in front of the Dallas net to bang home a Markus Naslund rebound. The Morrison goal gave the Canucks a 2-0 lead after the first period. The Canucks tenacious play didn't give Dallas much room for anything and Alex Auld was not significantly tested.
The second period was much of the same as the Canucks were solid in every area of the game. Trevor Linden was winning faceoffs, Ed Jovanovski was hitting everything in his path, Matt Cooke was too. The defenceman were making the smart first pass out of the Canuck zone, allowing the forwards to generate chance after chance off the rush. Every player on the roster had energy and jump and that made it possible for all the important "little things" to get done. The little things like skating hard and angling on the forecheck, backchecking hard and following your man all the way to the net, finishing every check you can and not doing the lazy sweep check on your way by, smothering your man in front of your net and clearing every rebound within your reach. The Canucks were doing it all on this night, and it sure was great to see. The Stars needed a questionable two-man advantage to get one past the rookie Auld, as Stars defenceman Darryl Sydor snapped home a shot from the high slot while Canuck defenceman Murray Baron and Helmer sat watching from the box. Things got a little tense from there and in the middle of the frame, Auld became a factor as he stoned the Stars with a great save on a one-timer from Joe Nieuwendyk. How huge was this save for the Canucks? They were dominating a good conference foe, on the road, yet had the Nieuwendyk shot beat the rookie, they would have found themselves tied 2-2 going into the final frame. Instead, Auld stopped the Olympian and the Canucks held a slim 2-1 lead after two periods.
As a team leading 2-1 with the last period under way, you have to be thinking "The next one is huge boys, 3-1 us or 2-2 and back to square one". You have to have that desperation in your game. The Canucks have been all too happy this season to sit back and try to ride out the win. Too often they have had the "we have the lead, our work is done" attitude and it has cost them. When your team is playing tentative with the lead, you need leaders to take charge and show desperation by example. The Canucks have found themselves in this situation many times this season, and that leadership and desperation seemed to be missing from the line-up. Re-enter Trent Klatt. Klatt missed many of those situations this season as he was out of the line-up with a pelvic bone injury. He is back now, and Wednesday night, he led by example. Five minutes into the third period the Canucks were on a powerplay and pressing the Stars in their zone. Markus Naslund and Morrison were working the puck on the perimeter and there was Trent Klatt in front of the Stars net. He was battling in the trenches for screening position with none other than the Stars behemoth captain Derian Hatcher, who was hacking, wacking, and abusing Klatt as only Hatcher knows how. Klatt would not relent as red-hot Canuck defenceman Brent Sopel finally sent a point shot to the net. Deflection in front, scores. Trent Klatt with the deflection, Canucks lead 3-1. It turned out to be the winner as newest Star Scott Pellerin made it 3-2 with two minutes to play. Too little too late for the Stars as captain Naslund got an empty netter to seal the deal. Canucks win 4-2.
It was an all important win as the Canucks now find themselves only two points behind in the battle for the final playoff position. Obviously the win and the standings are the bottom line, but more impressive and satisfying to see is that the Canucks have played consistently strong hockey for more than a dozen games now, and seem to have a confidence and direction in their game night after night. In hockey, confidence is a powerful thing. It is like a sixth player on the ice as the decisions seem smarter, the strides seem quicker, the passes more crisp, the shots more accurate and the saves more timely. When you have confidence, you are assertive. When you don't have confidence, the other team senses that and it boosts their own. Confidence helped Trent Klatt be patient on the first period two on one. It also helped him feel that he could out battle Derian Hatcher when the game was on the line in the third period. It is often stated that confidence is the key to leadership, and Klatt proved it true for Vancouver.
Confidence is an important strength in the National Hockey League, and so is poise, but poise is often gained through experience. So, how do you explain the great poise rookie Alex Auld showed between the pipes in his first start ever? "You have to know that you are ready", Auld stated in post game comments. "I just went out and did what I've been doing for years", he added. Sounds like a guy who is pretty confident don't you agree? Auld found himself in the hot seat quite suddenly as he was in Manitoba on Tuesday when the Canucks number one man Dan Cloutier went down with a sprained ankle. The first year pro from Cold Bay, Alberta was called up to the big club to serve as the backup for regular backup Peter Skudra. When Skudra was deemed unhealthy in Dallas, Auld was forced to the front without much time for nerves or self-doubt. This was his first game in the show, how would a pro so green prepare for such a test? He would have to reach inside himself for resources of past success. He had to source his minor hockey and junior prowess to gain the confidence that he needed to hold it together. It was a huge mental test for the rookie. He aced it with true poise.
In a season of streaks and stalls, the game of hockey becomes just as much a mental battle as it does a physical one. Klatt, Auld and the Canucks are mentally strong right now, they are hot. One of the hottest teams in the league. Let's hope they have that heat with them when they touch down tomorrow at Vancouver International Airport. We need it here to melt the snow.
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