If it wasn’t Keith Ballard’s best game as a Canuck, it’s hard to recall one that was better.
The much-maligned defenceman was solid in a pairing with frequent partner Chris Tanev and scored a highlight-reel goal on a warp-speed play that he started in his own zone and finished at the other end on a wonderful pass from Henrik Sedin.
Mind you, Ballard is coming off such a tough year that the bar didn’t get very high last season, his first in Vancouver.
Ballard, 28, found himself at a deficit almost from the beginning after being acquired by the Canucks in a multi-player trade with Florida last summer. The main reason was off-season hip surgery, which set him back in training. An early-season concussion didn’t help and by November he was a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career. A knee injury in February added to Ballard’s frustrations and by the time the playoffs rolled around he found himself a frequent healthy scratch.
Ballard, who faced huge expectations because of his $4.2 million contract, looks like a different player. Certainly, a solid summer of training – and a chance to clear his mind – has paid off.
“Physically it is (better), but I don’t want to use injuries as an excuse,” said Ballard Saturday, as the Canucks embarked on a four-games-in-six-days road trip that begins on Monday in Columbus. “I didn’t have a very good year, but I’ve moved past that. I had a good summer with the right mind-set. Physically, I feel as good as I have in a while and that’s all I’m going with. I just want to come in and play solid and be reliable.”
In preseason and in Thursday’s 4-3 OT loss to Pittsburgh in the season opener, you noticed Ballard’s skating – one of his biggest assets. Last season, not so much. He admits that last year, as his struggles mounted he tried to do too much and ended up compounding his problems.
“You get into bigger mistakes usually and I did that a bit last year,” he said. “It was up and down when it didn’t go well I tried to do too much. This year it’s been different, keep it simple, make the right read, make the right play, use my skating, use my abilities.
“It’s just playing to my strengths and that’s using my skating. If I’m not skating, getting back to pucks quick, get up in the play quick, then I’m not as effective. It’s just getting back to what’s made me successful.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault says an improved Ballard can only help a defence corps that will have to replace Christian Ehrhoff with a better group performance.
“That’s a real positive,” said Vigneault. “Keith came to camp with a great attitude and healthy and it showed since Day 1. He’s played real well. In the first game he was real dependable without the puck and made some good plays with it.”
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