The NHL is supposed to be chock-full of parity these days – and if you glance at the standings, that appears to be the case. It’s tight all over. In the Western Conference, for example, you can easily make the case that all 15 teams are still alive in the playoff hunt. How close is it? Entering Friday night’s action, fifth-place Anaheim had 57 points, eighth-place Vancouver had 54 and last-place St. Louis had 47 (and the Blues have four games in hand on the Ducks).
When the standings are packed like that, lengthy losing streaks are a playoff death sentence. Yet the Vancouver Canucks went on an eight-game winless skid (0-5-3) in January and came out the other side still in a playoff position. It doesn’t make sense; if you’ve been watching the Canucks play the past few weeks, you’ve probably stopped checking the standings. But fear not. Somehow, some way, the Canucks managed to remain relevant despite losing five straight games at home – including the first four in regulation time, so they didn’t even receive any “loser” points.
The freefall basically coincided with the return of Roberto Luongo and the arrival of Mats Sundin. Again, it doesn’t make sense. If you add the best goalie in the world and a top-flight forward, logically, it should make your team better. What it shouldn’t do is spark three weeks of losing in the middle of the season. The Canucks finally pulled out of it with a 4-3 win over the visiting Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday; but was it a blip or the start of a turnaround?
The good news is, Vancouver’s upcoming schedule is favorable. The Canucks have 12 games before the NHL trade deadline on March 4; that’s dozen games to figure out if they’re contenders or pretenders. Vancouver has five games against Eastern opponents, including Montreal twice, home and away. But the Canadiens are the only playoff team among Vancouver’s upcoming games against the East; Ottawa, Toronto and Tampa Bay are also on tap.
That leaves seven games against Western foes, but only Calgary and Chicago are solidly in the playoff mix; the rest of the Canucks’ games are against teams in that fifth-to-15th-place logjam, including tilts with St. Louis, Phoenix and Columbus. Detroit? Nope. San Jose? Nada.
Vancouver, a mere 2-5-5 in its past dozen outings, should be shooting to at least reverse that record in its next dozen contests. If that happens, they’ll likely try to trade for some help and go on a playoff run. But if the losing continues, they might as well send Sundin to a contender come March 4; otherwise, he’ll be heading back to Sweden much earlier than anticipated this spring.
This column also appears in the Vancouver Metro newspaper.
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