League-leading Canucks have fans thinking Cup

Not even the anniversary of last year’s successful Winter

Olympics has diverted Vancouver’s attention from a matter of

national importance – the Canucks and their chances of ending

Canada’s Stanley Cup drought.

Though Olympic memories abound following recent celebrations to

mark the opening of the 2010 Games, Vancouver is once again all

about its NHL team.

”It keeps the pressure up. It means that sometimes you’re not

as happy as some people think you should be or might be,”

Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis said. ”But that’s the nature

of the beast. This team hasn’t won in 40 years and we think we have

a unique opportunity in front of us to capitalize on if everything

goes well and we get some luck.”

Nearly two decades have passed since a Canadian team won a

Stanley Cup, but the Canucks are doing their best to give hope that

maybe it’s time to break the drought.

They led the league in points entering Friday’s games, the

latest into a season Vancouver has ever found itself in line to win

the President’s Trophy. A team that’s topped 100 points in the

regular season only five times in franchise history cracked the

80-point mark with 25 games remaining.

During the 18 years since the Montreal Canadiens won the Cup in

1993, the warm-weather expansion teams of Anaheim and Tampa Bay won

titles – as have relocated teams Carolina and Dallas – while

Canadian clubs are 0-4 in the finals during that span.

It’s a failure Canadians take personally. And while two Olympic

golds during that time, including Sidney Crosby’s legendary

overtime winner in this town a year ago, have eased some of the

pain, winning a Cup remains a priority.

So excuse the optimistic blue-and-white clad Canucks fans who

are more than a little hyped that their team is the class of the

league with two-thirds of the season gone.

Vancouver has gone 40 seasons with just two Stanley Cup finals

appearances, the last coming in 1994 when Pavel Bure and Trevor

Linden took the Canucks within one victory of upsetting the New

York Rangers.

Bure, once known as the Russian Rocket, has been replaced in

Vancouver lore by Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Ryan

Kesler, the Canucks’ leading goal scorer, is an American hothead

who’s tempered his penchant for fighting to set a new career high

in goals, deciding to punish his opponent by scoring instead of

letting his emotions boil to the point of distraction.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo is on pace for the finest regular

season in his career, recently going 21 consecutive starts without

a regulation defeat.

Maybe Canadians longing to return the Stanley Cup north should

be optimistic about these Canucks.

This Canucks’ renaissance is due largely to Gillis and coach

Alain Vigneault, and their ability to keep a core of stars – the

Sedins, Luongo, Kesler, Alex Burrows – happy and content.

Gillis brought a new approach when he took over the Canucks

before the start of the 2009-10 season. The former agent

restructured the operations department when he arrived, bringing in

more than 60 years of playing experience to the front office.

”At the end of the day if you have to take less money because

the resources are being used in different ways, it seems like our

guys have bought into it and if you don’t buy into it you’re not

going to be here,” Gillis said. ”You’re either in, you’re fully

in, or your not. I think that’s been an incredibly positive from a

team perspective, managing a team, having players willing to do

that and I think that leads to success.”

While the Canucks continue to win at a franchise-record pace,

there are concerns.

Foremost is the stream of injuries that began last summer when

defenseman Sami Salo ruptured his Achilles’ tendon playing floor

hockey, only returning to the team last week. The big loss came

last month when Alexander Edler, the Canucks’ best offensive

blue-liner, was sidelined by back surgery. He hopes to return just

before the playoffs.

The defense has been especially hard hit with Dan Hamhuis

(concussion), Keith Ballard (knee), Lee Sweatt (foot) all missing

time. The latest blows came when Andrew Alberts broke his wrist

against St. Louis on Monday and Bieksa broke his left foot blocking

a shot Tuesday in Minnesota. There is no timeline on their

return.

There’s also the question of whether a finesse team can succeed

against physical teams in the playoffs.

The Canucks aren’t physically imposing and lack an enforcer.

They try to hurt opponents on the power play, where Vancouver is

the best in the NHL this season.

But can that translate in the postseason? The last two years, an

easily distracted Canucks team got bullied out of the playoffs in

the conference semifinals by Chicago.

The Canucks say they learned from the mistakes they made last

year. Of course, the only opportunity to prove that will come when

the postseason begins in April.

”A lot of guys have been here a long time and realize we

haven’t done anything until we’ve won the Stanley Cup,” Daniel

Sedin said. ”That’s what it’s going to come down to.”