VANCOUVER – When Vancouver Canuck fans talk about the team’s history, two of the highlights are losing in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup final and former coach Roger Neilson waving a white towel on a hockey stick to protest the officiating during a 1982 playoff game.
Defeat and surrender.
This year the Canucks have a chance to write a new chapter in team lore. The Canucks enter the NHL playoffs coming off the best regular season in the franchise’s 40-year history. They are legitimate contenders to be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.
The Canucks will face their old nemesis, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. Vancouver hosts Game 1 on Wednesday and Game 2 on Friday before the series shifts to Chicago.
The Blackhawks eliminated Vancouver from the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons, but they will ice a very different team this year. Salary cap issues resulted in players like goaltender Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager all being stripped from the Chicago lineup.
Meanwhile the Canucks have added players like defenceman Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, forward Raffi Torres, and backup goaltender Cory Schneider.
“We have two different teams now,” said Canuck captain Henrik Sedin. “From last year, we have changed five or six guys and they have lost key guys.
“It’s not the same teams.”
The expectations are huge in a city that has wrapped itself in Canuck colours. Years of disappointment and heartbreak can be erased if the Stanley Cup comes to Vancouver. Instead of feeling the pressure, the players have embraced the excitement.
“It’s just going to be fun,” said Daniel Sedin, the NHL’s scoring champion. “It’s the best part of the year and we’ve got a great group.
“We’re having a lot of fun together. We’re looking forward to a great run. We’ve got to realize that we don’t need to do anything extra. It’s about coming to the rink and working hard and playing the right way.”
Centre Ryan Kesler has lived through some of the Canuck lean years. He feels anticipation, not apprehension, in the Vancouver dressing room.
“We know this group is excited,” said Kesler. “We’re ready for the challenge.”
Vancouver overcame a two-goal deficit Saturday night to defeat the Calgary Flames 3-2 in overtime in the final game of the regular season. For the first time in franchise history the Canucks have won the Presidents’ Trophy for being the top team in the league with a record of 54-19-9 for 117 points.
Vancouver also set franchise records for wins, points and road victories (27). The Canucks scored 262 goals, more than any team in the league. The 185 goals allowed is the least in the league, meaning goaltender Roberto Luongo and Schneider will receive the Jennings Trophy.
Daniel Sedin had two assists in the win over Calgary, securing the Art Ross Trophy with 41 goals and 63 assists for 104 points. He will be one of the players considered for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Twin brother Henrik won the scoring title last year with 112 points and was named league MVP. It’s the first time brothers have won back-to-back scoring titles.
The Canucks have a 41-goal scorer in Kesler. Henrik Sedin leads the league with 75 assists while forward Alex Burrows has 26 goals in 72 games.
Vancouver has two lines that can score goals, a solid defence and one of the best goaltenders in the league in Luongo. The Canucks have the league’s best power play and one of the best penalty-killing units.
The team has veteran experience and a former Stanley Cup winner in Mikael Samuelsson.
“We’ve been together for five years, the core group and myself,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We’ve all grown together and with one another. I think everybody’s improved during that time.
“We really feel that we’re ready for this moment. We tried to play well, play the right way, play hard during the regular season.”
The Canucks even have history on their side.
Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics. The Canadiens finished the 1976-77 season with the best overall record (60 wins, eight losses, 12 ties for 132 points) and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The 1988 Winter Olympics were in Calgary. The Flames won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1988-89 with a 54-17-9 record for 117 points, then won the team’s only Stanley Cup.
Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.Now the Canucks have won the Presidents’ Trophy.
For the playoffs, the Canucks will be without centre Manny Malhotra who has undergone two surgeries after being hit in the left eye by a puck on March 16. Malhotra has been a key defensive player, taking most of the important faceoffs and leading the penalty kill.
Torres will also miss the first two games of the playoffs as he finishes a four-game suspension for a hit to the head of Edmonton Oilers rookie Jordan Eberle.
Dealing with injuries is nothing new for Vancouver. The team lost defencemen Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Hamhuis, plus Burrows for long stretches this season.
Considering all the Canucks have accomplished this year, the team has stayed very grounded. They understand the most important games lay ahead.
Since the Presidents’ Trophy was introduced in the 1985-86 season, only seven of the 28 teams that have won the award went on to hoist the Stanley Cup. Another two lost in the Cup finals.
The 2008 Detroit Red Wings were the last team to claim both trophies.
“For us really not much is going to change,” said Vigneault. “Our expectations going into this season were very high.
“We took it one game at a time. We focused on our game and our play. That’s what we’re going to do come the playoffs. We’re going to take it a game at a time and that’s not going to change.”