The Vancouver Canucks kick off the 2011-2012 NHL season Thursday night with a marquee match-up with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite being one of the best teams in the NHL, the Canucks are still dogged with some nagging questions.
They have a chance tonight against Pittsburgh to make an early statement.
One game, especially the first game of a season, is hardly that important of a game in the larger sense, but Vancouver can use a strong effort.
When we last saw them they were getting pushed around by the Boston Bruins and accusations of being soft, having no heart and being dirty divers were being slapped on them. Tonight they can start to dispel those reputations.
Tonight they play one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference and by playing well and winning convincingly they can wipe the bad taste of last year’s finals from their mouths. If they lose, if Luongo plays poorly or if Pittsburgh pushes them around, the narrative from last spring will intensify.
Vancouver, in the past few seasons, have struggled out of the gate playing .500 hockey in October. Now more than ever they need to reverse that trend.
They will find that harder to do without Ryan Kesler and with other players still sore from a long and grueling season last year.
Despite that, the Canucks do have some things working in their favor. They get to open at home in front of an enthusiastic sell-out crowd eager to move on from last year’s disappointment. They also get a Penguins team that is missing their best player.
Even without Sidney Crosby the Penguins are still a tough out and the Canucks will need to come out ready to skate.
They will need to show that their power play is still potent (even without Christian Ehrhoff), and that they have found a new toughness. This will be the debut of Vancouver’s new bruising fourth line. It would not be surprising to see them try and make a statement against a Pittsburgh team that is no stranger to the rough stuff.
Vancouver may face the most pressure from their own fan base. As passionate as Canucks fans are, they also put a lot of pressure on the team.
If Vancouver comes out flat tonight, local talk shows and internet message boards will be in full panic modes, Luongo will be ripped (no matter how he plays) and Alain Vigneault’s job will be called for. The local media will pile on as well and the Canucks may start gripping their sticks tight.
So, for an opening night game coming off a Stanley Cup run, there is a lot at stake here.
Tonight’s game is on national television in both Canada and the US.
Vancouver has a chance to tell the hockey world that they are back and are going to be a force to be dealt with.