At four games, this is the second-longest road trip of the truncated season and arguably the hardest one. (There is a five-game road trip in April, but two of the games are against Northwest Division doormats, so that doesn’t really count.)
With all four games against teams that should be in the playoff picture, this trip should be a good litmus test for the Canucks now that they are settling into familiar roles with Ryan Kesler’s return from injury.
Tuesday, Feb. 19 vs. Chicago Blackhawks
This is the first game of the road trip and the hardest. The Hawks are leading the NHL with a 12-0-3 record and have yet to lose a game in regulation. The Madhouse on Madison is one of the toughest buildings in the NHL.
On the other hand, if the Canucks can hand the Hawks their first regulation loss of the season, on home ice to boot, that would just add more fuel to what is one of the modern NHL’s greatest rivalries.
Canucks won the previous game 2-1 in a shootout, so we know they can play with the Hawks.
Notable lineup changes from that previous game to now are the return of Kesler for the Canucks and a suspected concussion sidelining Corey Crawford of the Hawks. Will that be enough to make a difference?
Thursday, Feb. 21 vs. Dallas Stars
Expect to see a fair bit of fisticuffs in this rematch. Dallas is 8-7-1, good for 17 points and seventh place in the Western Conference.
The Canucks fell 4-3 to the Stars in a scrappy game just six days before this match. That match featured three fights in quick succession and several big hits, so expect some bad blood to carry over.
The big question is: Will starting goalie Kari Lehtonen be back? He hurt his groin against the Canucks and was originally marked as day-to-day, but the injury appeared to be more serious at that point.
Friday, Feb. 22 vs. Nashville Predators
This will be the first game of a back-to-back for the Predators and the second game of a back-to-back for the Canucks.
In an odd quirk of the compressed schedule, after this game the Canucks and Predators will both fly out of Nashville and head to Detroit, with the Preds playing the Wings on the following night and the Canucks following up the next day.
The Predators (7-3-5) are tied with the Canucks at 19 points apiece, and games between the two teams are usually physical affairs. Expect this one to go 65 minutes or longer. The Preds have the most overtime or shootout games in the West, and the Canucks are right behind them.
It will be interesting to see how this first matchup in the post-Suter era goes, as usually the Suter plus Shea Weber defence pairing was matched up against Kesler after his dominant performance against the Preds in the 2011 playoffs.
Now that Kesler is back from injury, can he take advantage of a solo Weber?
Sunday, Feb. 24 vs. Detroit Red Wings
As noted earlier, this is the second game of a back-to-back for the Wings, with the Predators visiting Detroit on the Saturday night prior to the Canucks matchup.
Hopefully the physical Predators take a bite out of their divisional rivals and the Canucks manage to recharge a bit before engaging the Wings on the last game of the road trip.
Detroit is surprisingly on the outside of the playoff picture at this point, sitting in ninth place with a 7-6-2 record. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising in the new era without Lidstrom, but by no means should any team take the Wings lightly.
The Blackhawks will be the toughest test, but the Canucks should be fired up to play their archrivals, especially after dropping two games in a row on home ice to end their current homestand. This game should be a toss-up.
How many points will the Canucks get on this trip?
The other three games aren’t pushovers, but they are definitely winnable.
Overall, I’d expect the Canucks to return from the road trip with a 2-1-1 record. The Canucks aren’t firing on all cylinders yet, but they are getting there. There were encouraging signs even in the shootout loss to the Blues immediately prior to embarking on this road trip.
On a personnel front, expect both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider to keep on splitting the net. Even if one goalie gets on a hot streak, the back-to-back games in Dallas and Nashville should mean both see starts on this road trip.
David Booth is also expected to join the team on the trip as he recovers from a groin injury, but I wouldn’t expect him to be in game shape yet. He’ll probably make his season debut on home ice after the trip.