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Canucks expected to be fighting for playoff spot, not division title

The Canucks can wrap up first place in the Northwest Division and home-ice advantage to open the playoffs with a win over the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday at GM Place. That's quite an achievement for a team many thought would struggle to even make the playoffs.

"I thought coming into the season we'd have to scrape and claw for one of the last spots, with the turnovers and the new coaching staff," centre Brendan Morrison admitted Wednesday after the Vancouver practice. "It took us a while to really believe we could win."

Before the Canucks can celebrate their second division title in three seasons, they must beat a Colorado team battling for its playoff life. The red-hot Avs, who have won eight of their last 10 games, dodged another bullet Tuesday by defeating the Calgary Flames 4-3.

Not only did the win deny the Flames a chance to wrap up a playoff berth, it moved Colorado to within five points of Calgary with three games remaining in the fight for the final post-season berth.

Colorado captain Joe Sakic said the Avs would relish playing the role of spoiler twice in a week.

"It's just like we wanted to postpone Calgary's playoffs last night," said Sakic, who had a goal and three assists against the Flames. "It's the same thing (Thursday).

"We've been here for so long, guys are loose and relaxed and having fun with it."

Vancouver leads the Northwest Division with 103 points, three more than the Minnesota Wild. Even if the Canucks lose they still can claim the division crown if Minnesota loses to Edmonton on Thursday night.

Ironically, Vancouver clinched a playoff spot last week with a 3-0 win in Denver. Since then, the Canucks have won their 48th game of the year, breaking the franchise record of 46 set in 1992-'93, and are just one point shy of tying the team record of 104 points set in 2002-'03.

Even coach Alain Vigneault said this was more than he expected after taking over from Marc Crawford, who was fired last spring when Vancouver failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

"To tell you the truth I didn't assume we would have it clinched this early," said Vigneault, who has been mentioned as a coach-of-the-year candidate. "I thought we would be fighting all the way down right to the last 10 days to get into the playoffs."

Captain Markus Naslund is an example of what has changed with the Canucks. He's scored only 24 goals this season, down from 32 last year, but is a plus-1, a huge improvement from the minus-19 he ended last season with.

Naslund credited Vigneault with rekindling Vancouver's worth ethic.

"It's a great accomplishment," said Naslund. "We basically had a new team in here with a new coaching staff.

"We found a way to get an identity and work well together. I think it was hard work. We got a little bit away from that (work ethic) in the past."

Stealing Roberto Luongo from Florida in a trade for Todd Bertuzzi gave Vancouver the goaltending it needed.

With Luongo in net, and a new dedication to defence, the Canucks have allowed just 192 goals this season, way down from the 255 they gave up last year. Vancouver also is second in the league with a 29-11-7 record in one-goal games.

Defenceman Mattias Ohlund said that's going to make a difference in the playoffs.

"We scored more goals before, we had more talented teams before, but a lot of times in the playoffs it comes down to being able to hold onto a 2-1 or 3-2 lead," he said. "We've proven so far this year we are a pretty good team when we are up a goal.

"I think that's a good strength going in the playoffs."

The Avs, who have 91 points, have no room for error. Colorado needs to win all of its remaining games to not miss the playoffs for the first time since 1994. Calgary, which has 96 points, needs just two points in its final three games to cement a berth.

It's possible the team's fates could be decided when they face each other in the final game of the season Sunday in Denver.

Veteran Canuck Trevor Linden said the Avalanche won't go down without a fight.

"They are going to be going on full cylinders and we know that," he said. "We know they're a good offensive team.

"That is something we are going to have to be concerned about."


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