VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are seeking an answer to a critical question—other than goaltender Cory Schneider’s health—as they attempt to return to the Stanley Cup finals.
Which version of the team will show up?
The Canucks hope it will be the squad that dominated the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks recently and not the one that often lurched through a lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season.
“If we can keep building on (the win over Chicago), we shouldn’t be afraid of any team,” said captain Henrik Sedin, whose club will face the San Jose Sharks in the opening round, starting Wednesday in Vancouver.
The Canucks won their fifth-straight Northwest Division title with a 26-15-7 record, securing the third seed in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the post-season. But it remains to be seen whether they can still strike fear in opponents like they did en route to claiming a pair of Presidents’ Trophy titles in the past two seasons and a berth in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup final.
A year ago, the Canucks headed into the playoffs riding an 8-1-1 record in their last 10 regular-season games but lost to eventual champion Los Angeles in the first round. By comparison, they closed out the 2013 campaign with a 5-4-1 mark.
Despite their average record down the stretch, Sedin believes the Canucks actually have more momentum this year. His twin brother Daniel Sedin, who missed the last nine games of the 2011-12 regular season and first two games of the playoffs with a concussion, is healthy. Meanwhile, other key players have recovered from recent ailments, and the club has shown an ability to overcome deficits recently in games that mattered most.
Never mind that Vancouver did not come close to claiming the Presidents’ Trophy again. It did not mean much to the players or their title hopes.
“I don’t think we put too much into that in the past, either,” said Henrik Sedin. “The first year we won, it was a big thing for us and the franchise. The second year, we weren’t aiming for it. It’s just happened that we played well. I think it says well about your team if you’re able to win it. But going into the playoffs, I don’t think it matters.”
Despite their inconsistency this season, the Canucks do have a few things going for them. They have a solid goaltending tandem in Schneider—who practised Monday but is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury according to coach Alain Vigneault—and Roberto Luongo.
In front of the goalies is a dependable defence corps that ranks among the best in the league.
On offence, their improving power play is critical, because the Canucks only converted three of 21 man-advantage opportunities while losing in the first round to the Los Angeles Kings last spring.
Derek Roy, acquired from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline, and Ryan Kesler, finally healthy after missing most of the season due to various injuries, are making a difference in man-advantage situations.
“Getting Derek in has helped a lot,” Sedin said. “Getting Kes back, a right-handed shot, that’s I think the one thing we’ve been missing all year. You have different options.
“A lot of times, we’ve had five lefties on the ice, and it’s tough when the teams know where the shot’s going to come from. When you have a right-handed shot and take shots from the other side, it’s going to open up a lot more for me. … It’s a scoring chance every time you take a shot.”
The Canucks will have to show more offensive consistency in five-on-five situations. Since 2010-11, Vancouver has fallen from first in the NHL in scoring to fifth to 19th. Vigneault has struggled to identify his top nine forwards, sometimes experimenting by putting a defenceman, such as Keith Ballard, on the wing.
Depending on what happens in these playoffs, Vancouver’s core, which has been in place for several years, could be broken up.
“Obviously, the window’s closing–for sure,” said winger Alex Burrows, referring to the core group’s Stanley Cup opportunity. “We’ve been successful the last few years, getting into the playoffs and taking a run at it a couple years ago. But we know that it takes a lot of work to make that run.”
Theoretically, the shortened season has helped the Canucks, and any other team for that matter, prepare for the post-season, because all teams have to play with minimal rest during the playoffs.
But Kesler does not think the compressed season will help the Canucks manufacture the one essential element that they need.
“It’s always that playoff intensity,” Kesler said. “You can say you can prepare for it, but once that puck drops, you’ve got to rely on past experiences, like in playoffs, where you know what kind of intensity it is. Games have a lot of meaning.”
Accordingly, there is not much value in trying to compare the Canucks’ 2013 regular-season results to those from previous years.
“It’s kind of useless to compare them,” Kesler said. “It’s one of those things where, I think we all know, when playoffs start, your record before doesn’t matter.
“It’s how you compete from that day on.”