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Canucks Watch: From dark horse to contender

With a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Vancouver Canucks have an interesting decision to make.

Do they want to go into the playoffs as an underdog with upset potential or do they want to go in as a top-seeded favorite?

The benefits to holding off the Calgary Flames and winning the Northwest Division are obvious. First off, it means the Canucks would get the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference – hello, home ice in Round 1 (and maybe even Round 2 if things break right).

Also, as a top seed, the first round would be a little friendlier; Vancouver likely would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, an franchise making its first foray into the post-season, rather than Chicago or Anaheim. Nothing’s guaranteed, of course, but an opening matchup against a team with little playoff experience is always going to be preferable over a springtime-tested team.

Finally, winning the division would be the perfect conclusion to two-plus months of near-perfect hockey. The Canucks, with one of the league’s best records since the All-Star Game, have morphed from a playoff bubble team to a legitimate force in the West. With a division title in their back pocket, they’d be oozing confidence as they cruised into the post-season.

Then again, there are a couple of perks to an under-the-radar approach. If, say, the Canucks fail to capture the Northwest, they’re still looking good for the No. 4 seed – so they’d still get home-ice advantage in Round 1 (and maybe even Round 2).

Their opponent would probably be the Blackhawks and, yes, it would probably be a tougher series than the Jackets. The Hawks have goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004, and this year has easily been his best season since that memorable championship run.

But other than Khabibulin, Sami Pahlsson, Brian Campbell and Martin Havlat, Chicago, like Columbus, is virtually devoid of playoff experience.

Another potential positive to a low-profile playoff entrance is the reduced expectations that come with being a lower seed.

Let’s face it, the Canucks aren’t exactly overloaded with playoff experience and Cup-winning veterans. Maybe the payoff isn’t worth it if the No. 3 seed comes with a big target on your back.

The Canucks are good, but surely they’d rather sneak up on teams than have everyone gunning for them.

Regardless whether they’re a top seed or middle-of-the-pack in the West, the Canucks’ charge up the standings in the second half of the season altered perceptions and raised expectations. They might not be of the same caliber as Detroit or San Jose, but they’ve proven they belong in the next tier of contenders.

This column also appears in the Vancouver Metro newspaper.

Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a regular contributor to His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.

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