<table width=90%><tr><td><img src=http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2007/07/mikeblog.gif border=0 align=left hspace=4 vspace=1>Is it possible that somewhere between a happy Eli Manning and a frustrated Mats Sundin lays the duty of Markus Naslund and the fate of this season's Vancouver Canucks?
Sure, why not? My insomnia and frequent hits to the head over the years say yes!
In what I promise will be my last football reference for this hockey season, my geographic locality made it fundamentally impossible to not have noticed the Giants huge NFL Superbowl win over the Patriots on Sunday (why impossible? When the pregame starts at 6:00 AM on most channels, I call that impossible. Also they drugged the water and start killing kittens if you don't watch, it's actually quite abrasive and not very friendly).
At any rate, what Eli Manning did in the final two minutes of that game was what I imagine he spent his whole life trying to perfect: go out there, get the team down the field and get it done. Period. No need for a big speech or overblown antics, just go. With a mad amount of luck on his side, Manning quietly and efficiently did just that, denying the Pats their drive for a perfect season and turning New England fans into a rather surly, sullen bunch of chowder eaters.
<a href=http://cdn.nhl.com/mapleleafs/images/upload/2007/12/sundin640panthers2.jpg target=_blank><img src=http://cdn.nhl.com/images/upload/2007/12/tor_fla_action_122207_thumb.jpg border=0 align=right hspace=4 vspace=1></a>On the other end of the sports spectrum you have Mats Sundin, the ever beleaguered Swedish captain of the even more beleaguered Toronto Maples Leafs. In what had to kick Toronto area Molson sales to their highest peak of the year, the Leafs rolled over and played very dead (to the tune of 8-0) against the Red Wing...er no...the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night. I repeat, the Panthers, the Richard Zednik-laced Panthers.
Nearing his mental tipping point, Sundin did what few Swedes not named Ulf Samuelsson do: showed his anger; as the Toronto Star recapped it, "Sundin so clearly fed up with the whole thing that, in an episode of uncharacteristic belligerence, he slammed defenseman Bryan Allen under the crossbar." First off, who's Bryan Allen? Secondly, a Swedish captain showing something close to raw emotion at his team's inability to get the job done on the ice? Wow, pinch me.
Enter Markus Naslund, another Swedish captain on a team that is flirting with disaster. Luongo may be the soul of the team, but Naslund has just as much responsibility - no, even more - to elevate his play and carry the team through the rough patches. Rough patches like, oh, an incredible rash of injuries along the blue line and having Manitoba bail the big boys out. Rough patches like being 21st in the league in scoring. Rough patches like being 2-5-3 in their last ten with Edmonton nipping at their heels for last in the division. Succeeding in the face of these rough patches is what creates great captains, hell it's what creates legends.
<a href=http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2008/01/JAN1908_Kings-Canucks16_b.jpg target=_blank><img src=http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2008/01/JAN1908_Kings-Canucks16_t.jpg border=0 align=left hspace=4 vspace=1></a>In the Dallas game earlier this week, Nazzy did just this, almost single-handedly keeping the team in the game with his two goals in regulation and SO tally. That's Nazzy being like Manning: go out there and get the job done. But Naslund can't do that every night. So, while it's not in his nature, what if Naslund responded like Sundin during a game where the team falls asleep? You think seeing their captain get visibly frustrated and show some raw emotion won't spark younger guys like McIver, Bourdon, Edler, Raymond, Jaffray and now Fitzgerald? I'd argue these guys will be just as motivated by Luongo standing on his head to make a save as they would be to see Naslund make a statement, either with his stick or through an occasional, infrequent "episode of uncharacteristic belligerence".
It's not do or die time yet and there's still a lot of hockey to be played. It's foolish to count out a team that has Luongo in net, but this isn't last year’s amazing winter stretch; Lui will need a lot more offensive support to get through the next few games if not weeks. I, for one, want to see Naslund rise to the occasion and help spark the team around him with whatever tools he has, be it through with the puck at the end of his stick or with a cross check. Either can be defined as a spark and that’s what the team is going to desperately need.
And, hey, if he needs some pointers? Call Sundin! With Toronto playing like they are, I'm sure he's got some ideas on speaking softly but wielding that big stick with extreme prejudice.