VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks know they have done a lot of things right to be tied for first place in the NHL heading into the all-star break.
What the players prefer to focus on is what they need to do better if Vancouver hopes to move past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
“I don’t think we are comfortable,” said centre Ryan Kesler, who already has a career high 27 goals this season. “We need to keep pushing, keep getting better as a team.
“As soon as comfortable starts creeping into our game is when we’re going to be falling in the standings.”
The Canucks’ record of 31-10-4 for 71 points leaves them tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for first overall in the league. Vancouver is five points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings for top spot in the Western Conference and a staggering 15 points clear of the Colorado Avalanche in the Northwest Division.
The Canucks have not lost a game at home in regulation time since Dec. 5. The team rode a streak of 17 games without a loss in regulation.
So far, the journey has been fun, but it’s the destination the Canucks are focused on.
“We’re not satisfied,” said defenceman Keith Ballard. “This is not what we are looking for, leading the Western Conference at the all-star break. That’s not one of our goals.”
The Canucks’ strength is the team’s depth and players understanding their roles. Vancouver has received outstanding goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. The power-play is ranked near the top of the league and the penalty-kill in the top 10.
The Canucks will send captain Henrik Sedin, his twin brother Daniel and Kesler to the all-star game. Head coach Alain Vigneault will go as a coach.
Daniel Sedin sits third in league scoring with 27 goals and 37 assists for 64 points. Henrik, who was last year’s league MVP and won the scoring title, is next. He leads the NHL with 50 assists and has 11 goals for 61 points.
Kesler is proving to be one of the best two-way players in the league. Besides scoring goals he kills penalties and can play a physical game.
Players like centre Manny Malhotra and defenceman Dan Hamhuis have brought a maturity to the dressing room.
“It’s the way we are structured, the way we play, the way guys are taking ownership in this room,” said captain Henrik Sedin. “We are having fun together but we expect a lot of things from each other.”
Vigneault said a team never quits learning how to be good.
“We have to get better in all facets of the game,” he said. “That’s going to continue to be a big part of this group’s focus to improve individually and improve collectively.”
The Canucks still lack consistency. There are stretches some nights when the team looks out of sync. There isn’t flow or puck movement.
“There are parts of the game, five or 10 minutes, where we get a lot of pressure on us,” said Henrik. “We can’t seem to turn the corner.
“It’s minor things we can work on.”
Luongo can still be guilty of allowing soft goals. Having Schneider as a dependable backup will allow Vancouver to rest Luongo down the stretch.
Some Canucks have also had trouble scoring goals lately.
Jeff Tambellini, who got off to a good start, has just one assist in 15 games. Mason Raymond, who had a career high 25 goals last year, has scored twice in the last 14 games. Mikael Samuelsson has one goal in 16 games while Malhotra has no points in 14 games.
Even the twins have felt the chill. Daniel has gone six games without a goal while Henrik has two goals in his last 14.
Vancouver still managed to collect points during the drought. The Canucks have four wins in their last 10 games, but still gained four points by losing in overtime or shootouts.
“Our forwards are seeing a little bit right now that some guys aren’t scoring,” said Ballard. “That happens on very team throughout the league.
“It’s a credit to our depth, and the team we have, that even when that’s going on we’re finding ways to get points.”
The Canucks have lost several players with injuries recently, but their replacements have stepped forward.
Defenceman Lee Sweatt, playing in his first NHL game for the injured Alex Edler, scored the winning goal in Vancouver’s 2-1 victory over Nashville on Wednesday night.
Edler will undergo back surgery and is out indefinitely.
Two other defenceman Aaron Rome (knee) and Andrew Alberts (shoulder) are expected to return after the all-star break.
A major question Vancouver must answer is what to do with Sami Salo. The veteran defenceman has missed the season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered during the summer.
Salo has been skating with the Canucks, but the team isn’t predicting when he might return. If he does return, the Canucks will have to make salary cap room for him.
So far this year the Canucks have graded well in every aspect of their game. The true test will come in the playoffs.
“Making a few rounds is not going to be good enough either,” said Henrik Sedin. “We want to go further.”