And It Aint No April Fools Joke!
Two months to the day, on January 31st, the Vancouver Canucks lost in overtime at GM Place to the Minnesota Wild and were 12 points back of the Division-leading Calgary Flames, having played two more games than their rivals across the Rocky Mountains. The loss was the team's 9th straight at home and 8th consecutive overall, and the only thoughts that were relevant were can this team regroup and make the playoffs?
Fast forward to March 31st and that same always-a-thorn-in-Vancouver's-derriere Minnesota team was the host in a game that had heavy playoff implications for both teams … the Wild desperate for points to make the post-season period, while the Canucks had a chance to overtake the Flames for the top spot in the North West Division for the first time since December 14th.
It certainly weren't pretty, but the boys were led by their Captain who held the Wild at bay until Henrik Sedin potted the winning goal with 1 minute left in OT to give the Canucks the Penthouse view.
It really is a remarkable thing. To be able to make up 13 points in 8 weeks (playing 2 fewer games, no less) in a league that hands out points to teams that lose if they get past 60 minutes is almost impossible. For it to happen almost everything has to fall your way; you obviously have to play very well and win the majority of your games while the team(s) you are chasing need to stumble and bumble their way through games with very few loser points earned.
Since the calendar turned to February the Canucks have been the best team in the NHL with a record of 20-5-1, while the Flames have been a very pedestrian 13-13-2, and now it is the Canuckleheads who sit atop of the Division with their own destiny in their hands.
Things are far from done, as there's a long ways yet to go, including a visit here by Calgary in 6 days, but it's hard not to enjoy the moment and fantasize a little about what it means and the potential of a long playoff run this spring. So with that in mind, let's just take a little boo at the standings shall we? Just sit back and take it all in for a minute or two …
Western Conference # GP W L OT PTS 1 y – SAN JOSE* 76 50 15 11 111 2 y – DETROIT* 76 49 18 9 107 3 VANCOUVER 76 42 25 9 93 4 CALGARY 76 43 27 6 92 5 CHICAGO 75 40 24 11 91 6 COLUMBUS 77 40 29 8 88 7 ANAHEIM 77 39 32 6 84 8 NASHVILLE 77 38 31 8 84 9 ST LOUIS 76 37 30 9 83 10 MINNESOTA 77 36 32 9 81 11 EDMONTON 77 36 32 9 81 12 DALLAS 77 34 33 10 78 13 LOS ANGELES 76 31 34 11 73 14 PHOENIX 76 32 37 7 71 15 COLORADO 76 31 43 2 64
… OK, back to work!
Through these last 2 months it has been a very rare occasion indeed when Roberto Luongo has been needed to steal a game for this team and that, above all else, has been the genesis of growing hopes amongst Canuck Nation that their Boys actually might be able to do some damage in the playoffs.
If they can win like they have and not have to lean on their world-class goaltender night-after-night, well, let's just say that is quite the Ace Up Your Sleeve as the games become more and more important. Everyone knows Bobby Lou has the capability to win games by himself and that he lives and dies for the playoffs, and it was fitting that it was he who won this hockey game.
It's not like everyone else on the team was a no-show last night, but it was pretty clear that the guys who are supposed to skate with the puck towards the other end didn't have much gas in the tank playing the last game of a six-pack on the road in 12 days. Not to give them any more excuses, but they also just finished playing 15 games in a 29 day stretch, which is a fraction over a game every other night … when they're all must-wins, and more than half of them are on the road with extensive time spent flying around the Continent in between, it has to take a toll.
The game was pretty much as boring as a hockey game can get, a kitty-by-the-door affair that is oh-so-typical when the opposition is the Wild. The Canucks were fairly good defensively keeping legitimate scoring chances to a minimum … but offensively, not so much.
It was yet another example of the Canucks having confidence in themselves as a group to just stick to the system. This is a team that has won games in almost any way imaginable and last night's win in Minny was just another example of that.
The Wild outshot the Canucks 34-19 overall and a ridiculous 11-0 in the final period but Lui held down the fort with his usual excellent vision and positioning and some A-Grade rebound control through out … the guy was just a sponge all night, no matter where the puck hit him. Then Sami Salo took a delay of game late in the 3rd and the Canucks' resurgent penalty killing had to fend off the Wild for a minute-and-half of 4-on-3 in which he made 3 more saves.
Early in OT on the PK Willie Mitchell took a hard shot off of the inside of his foot and gutted it out while in tremendous pain, and actually blocked another one after that and made the play that led to the Canucks clearing the zone 45 seconds later. Last night was his first game that he wasn't an even or a plus in 27 games (now +31 on the year), but that shift says everything that you need to know about Willie (and earned him an A in The Grades, all by itself).
Henrik got the winner on a laser inside the post for his career-best 19th of the season, and 19th point in the month of March, which is the best in the league. Brother Daniel made a very nice back-pass between the legs for his 18th point of the month (which obviously makes him 2nd best in the league) on the play, so I guess the fading-down-the-stretch-thing for the twins can be put to rest with only playoff production still pending.
In the 15 games played last month, the twins, and what is looking more and more like a permanent Triplet in Alex Burrows, have put up 52 points. Pinky And The Brain were 1 & 2 in points and Burrow's 11 goals was the most in the league before last night's game, as was his +13 in the 31 days. Now that's production! Oh, and while were at it, Ryan Kesler's 16 points were 3rd best NHL-wide (before last night).
The Canucks are a balanced team that has all the ingredients required and deserves to be where they are, #1 in the NW and 3rd in the West … they didn't deserve it 2 months ago, but they absolutely do now.
The Grades …
A … Luongo, Mitchell
B … Kesler
C+ … Bieksa, Ohlund, Edler, O'Brien, Salo, Henrik, Daniel, Burrows, Wellwood, Johnson, Rypien
C … Sundin, Demitra, Bernier, Pyatt, Hordichuk
Next up is the Ducks of Anaheim here on Thursday with the 11-game Franchise-best home winning streak on the line. A win would not only ease the angst of those waiting for this team to inevitably fall on their sword as they seemingly always do, but help eliminate the possibility of having to face the much improved Ducks in the first round should they climb to 6th and the Canucks hang on to their current position in the standings … stay tuned.
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Written by Mark Gage