VANCOUVER – It would be easier to pick this weekend’s winning lottery numbers than guess who the Vancouver Canucks will meet when the NHL Western Conference playoffs begin next week.
A traffic jam in the standings had five points separating the six teams fighting for the last five playoff spots in the West heading into Friday’s games. The Canucks will probably need to wait until Sunday to see if they will face Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, Anaheim, Chicago or Dallas in the first round.
The Canucks, who have the league’s best record, will be doing some scoreboard watching when they play their final regular season game Saturday against the Flames.
“I won’t lie when I say for the last week or so we have been playing much more attention (to out-of-town scores) than we have in the past,” coach Alain Vigneault said after his team practised Friday before flying to Calgary.
“We have been trying to sort of take a look at who we might be playing and trying to prepare. We still have no idea.”
No surprise, the players become secretive when asked if there’s a team they’d rather play.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned is it’s not good to pick your matchups,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“No matter who we face it’s going to be a tough opponent. We are curious who we are going to face.”
Travel is the biggest concern for Daniel Sedin, who heads into the final weekend of the season leading the NHL points race with 102 points (41 goals, 61 assists).
“Travel wise, it would be nice to play a West Coast team,” he said. “Team wise, they should be more afraid they are going to play us.”
Twin brother Henrik said his choice of matchup changes day to day.
“You look at L.A.,” said the Canuck captain. “They had (Anze) Kopitar and (Justin) Williams injured.
“You think that would be a good matchup for us and they have been winning since they got injured. We could end up playing a lot of teams and they all are going to be tough battles.”
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks have beaten Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs the last two years. Some Canucks wouldn’t mind settling a few scores.
“If we see Chicago in the first round, great,” said forward Mason Raymond. “We’ve struggled with them the last couple of years.
“It would be fun to kick them out early if we play them.”
The Canucks have enjoyed the best season in franchise history. Vancouver won its first Presidents’ Trophy by setting team records for wins (53), points (115) and road wins (26).
The 259 goals that Vancouver has scored is more than any other team in the league. Luongo and backup Cory Schneider have allowed 183 goals and lead the race for the Jennings Trophy, given to the goaltending team which allows the fewest goals in the regular season.
The Canucks also know first-round upsets are not unusual in the playoffs.
“The teams that usually make the playoffs on the bottom are the teams that get hot late in the season,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “Whoever we play is going to be a good contender.”
The Canucks will play Saturday’s game without forward Raffi Torres. He was given a four-game suspension for a hit to the head of Edmonton Oilers rookie Jordan Eberle.
That means Torres can’t play again until the third game of the playoffs. He was surprised at the length of the suspension.
“At the end of the day they have to make their decision,” he said. “I don’t have to agree with them, which I don’t.
“At the end of the day it is what it is. I will move and support my teammates.”
The Canucks pounded the Minnesota Wild 5-0 on Thursday night to snap a two-game losing streak. Raymond had two goals in the rout.
Normally a winger, Raymond has been moved to centre on Vancouver’s third line. He replaced Manny Malhotra, who is out for the rest of the season with an eye injury.
Raymond’s goals against the Wild were his first in five games and third in the last 12.
“This time of year it’s not about goals and points,” he said. “Its about doing the right thing and preparing for the playoffs.”
It’s been a frustrating season for Raymond.
He set career highs last year with 25 goals and 28 assists. The 25-year-old from Cochrane, Alta., used that to help negotiate a US$5.1-million, two-year contract with the Canucks.
In 69 games this year, Raymond has 15 goals and 24 assists for 39 points. He has been slowed by a broken thumb, plus a wrist and shoulder injury.
“I’ve faced a lot this year,” he said. “There’s been different positions, different lines, not being healthy.
“I have learned through those and fought through those. You always are expecting a lot of yourself and want to do better.”
So far, the speedy Raymond has enjoyed the move to centre.
“You can skate a bit more and use your wheels a little more, so I do enjoy that,” he said.
Vigneault said Raymond’s versatility has been valuable.
“We can play him on the left side, we have played him in the middle,” said Vigneault.
“I’m very pleased with how he’s adjusted. We are going to need him down the stretch.”
The Flames are out of the playoff picture, but the Canucks are not expecting Calgary to roll over in Saturday’s game.
“They have pride,” said Bieksa. “They want to finish up their season strong.
“We can’t worry a whole lot about them. We don’t really care if they are going to come hard or not. We have to worry about ourselves, that our habits are good and we are not sloppy out there.”