NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has done his best the last few days to create a sense of urgency with his team, which appears ready to coast to a fifth straight Northwest Division title.
Vancouver’s chief — and only — competition for the division comes from Minnesota, which is struggling mightily not to fall out of the playoff race all together. The Wild are 1-5-1 in their last seven games, have won only once in regulation in their last 10 and hold only a two-point lead over the Western Conference’s ninth- and 10th-place teams.
Vancouver sits five points up on the Wild with seven games remaining, but ask Vigneault about the postseason and he keeps coming back to the same point: that the Canucks have yet to qualify.
“We’re not in the playoffs; we need to get a checkmark by our name,” he has said repeatedly over the last two days.
As Vigneault and his team learned all too painfully last season, urgency matters when the playoffs start. The Canucks earned the NHL’s top regular season record in 2011-12, but were upset in the first round by Los Angeles on the Kings’ stampede to the winning the Stanley Cup as the No. 8 seed.
Last year’s lofty expectations weren’t just based on what the Canucks did that season but on a body of work. The Canucks entered the playoffs as the defending Western Conference champions. In 2011, they stood one game away from winning the Cup, falling at home.
That’s two high-profile seasons in a row. This season, not so much. So much attention in the West has focused on the Chicago Blackhawks, who sucked the oxygen away from other contending teams by going the first half of the regular season without losing in regulation. In the East, Pittsburgh went on a 15-game winning streak recently. Even Anaheim has had a higher-profile season.
All of that has the Canucks flying under the radar in comparison to the last few years.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit,” said captain Henrik Sedin, winner of the 2010 Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. “In Vancouver, though, the attention and the expectations are still there. They’re always going to be there. At home, they’re the same but I think around the league we don’t get talked as much as in the past years.”
While it’s true that in a hockey-mad city like Vancouver, with one of the largest media contingents following it of any team in the league, it’s hard for expectations not to be high. But it’s also true that sometimes fans get lulled into a state of lower expectations. There’s not as much of a feeling of “Stanley Cup or Bust” as there might have been the last two seasons.
Perhaps, that could allow the Canucks to play a bit more freely when the playoffs start. Center Derek Roy, who arrived with a fresh perspective from Dallas one day before the April 3 trading deadline, thinks that could be the case, agreeing with the notion that Vancouver could be a dark horse.
“I think we like that position,” he said. “I think this team’s been in the opposite position the last two years. They’ve been the team to beat and everyone’s looking forward to beating them in the playoffs.
“This year, the dark horse is the spot we want to be in. We know we’ve got a good team in here. We believe in ourselves and we have talent. We just have to come together as a team and, obviously, get off to a good start in the playoffs.”
With a few rare exceptions — most notable being defenseman Christian Ehrhoff — the Canucks have retained virtually all of their key players from the team that reached the Cup final. Daniel and Henrik Sedin still lead the team in points, albeit with a new linemate in Jannik Hansen.
Battling through injuries this season, Ryan Kesler returned to the lineup recently and has been productive offensively since. Kesler, in particular, could be a difference-maker. In his four games since rejoining the lineup after missing 19 games with a broken foot, he has three goals and three assists. In the past, he has been a dominant force in the playoffs and if he returns to that form, he can be too much for almost any team to handle.
Of course, the newest wrinkle in the lineup appears to be the ascension of Cory Schneider, not Roberto Luongo, as the No. 1 goaltender for the first time in five years. Luongo lost the first two games against Los Angeles last year in the playoffs before Schneider played the final three, going 1-2.
Coaches love to talk about experience, good and bad. Vigneault was hopeful that even a losing experience like last year’s will benefit his team.
“You need to go through success and you need to go through some times when things don’t really go your way,” he said, “and we’re going to try to put it all together.”
Maybe this year, flying under the radar, they will.