Canucks assert themselves atop NHL's West

BY foxsports • January 13, 2012

ST. LOUIS – There is a feeling among some within the Vancouver Canucks that they can earn key victories without playing their best hockey. If so, the organization that's become a model of consistency in the Western Conference will make the next Stanley Cup Finals look much like the last.

In a season filled with talk about upstart teams such as the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators, the defending Western Conference champions keep doing what they've made routine over the past decade: They win. To rivals, they do it with maddening ease. To anyone inside their locker room, they do it because it's become expectation.

The Canucks won again Thursday night by silencing a raucous Scottrade Center crowd when winger Daniel Sedin slipped the puck past goalie Brian Elliot in overtime, giving Vancouver a 3-2 triumph that kept the Canucks atop the Western Conference.

So, discussion will continue about the Blues’ resurgence since Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach on Nov. 6. There will be more words spent about how the San Jose Sharks or Chicago Blackhawks could emerge to push the Canucks for Western Conference supremacy.

But the Canucks have been tested before. Their eight playoff appearances in the last 10 years prove as much. And Thursday night, they showed the Blues and other possible challengers they remain a threat.

"We haven’t played our best, so it shows that we are a good team," Sedin said. "We feel we can play a lot better. That’s a good thing. It’s a sign of a good team when you can have so-so games and still come out on the right side."

The game Thursday was supposed to be a sign that change was underway. The Blues entered as one of the hottest teams in the NHL, holding a four-game winning streak that included consecutive shutouts against the Colorado Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens.

Meanwhile, the Canucks’ week featured a loss to the Florida Panthers on Monday before a shootout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning the next night. Their trip to St. Louis closed a four-game road swing before beginning a six-game homestand Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks. Through it all, some observers considered them to be vulnerable.

But instead of the Blues making a statement Thursday, the sight of Sedin celebrating on the ice as seats cleared proved what was old in the Western Conference is new again. And keeping the Canucks from their second consecutive Stanley Cup Finals – where they would try to hoist the venerable trophy for the first time in franchise history – will take effort.

"It has taken a while," Canucks center Henrik Sedin said of Vancouver’s consistency. "I think we were in the same situation as St. Louis a couple years back where we had a lot of young guys coming up who wanted to prove that we were a good team. … For us, we really enjoy playing in Vancouver. A lot of guys want to play there, have taken pay cuts to play there. We’ve grown up together. We’re having fun."

That confidence in one another is part of the reason why the Canucks have made winning a habit. A glance at the NHL’s individual statistical leaders shows how deep they are: Henrik Sedin (52) and Daniel Sedin (49) are the top-two points producers, Daniel Sedin (19) is 10th in goals, goalie Cory Schneider (.927) is sixth in save percentage and Henrik Sedin (41) is first in assists.

As a result, it comes as no surprise that Vancouver is well-represented on the NHL All-Star roster announced Thursday. Four players – Daniel and Henrik Sedin, defenseman Alexander Edler and center Cody Hodgson – will take the ice Jan. 29 in Ottawa. Only the Senators (five) have more.

Such star power means Vancouver is capable of another deep postseason run in the coming months should they make it nine playoff appearances in the last 11 years as expected. They've been nothing short of consistent over the last decade: Since the 2000-01 season, their stretch has included four trips to the conference semifinals and the loss to the Boston Bruins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals last year.

Meanwhile, the result Thursday offered a glimpse of how far St. Louis must go to regain its status as the contender Vancouver has proven itself to be. Since the 2005-06 season, the Blues have made one trip to the postseason. And the Canucks were to blame for making that run brief. In 2009, Vancouver swept St. Louis in four games in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

But beyond recent history, the matchup Thursday also was a reminder that a new chapter in this series between contenders promises fresh intrigue. The Blues are rising, but they aren't ready to overtake the class of the Western Conference just yet. The Canucks remain a force, but much remains to be decided if they'll be able to outperform rising challenges.

"They obviously showed why they are the top team in the league, or at least in the West," Blues winger T.J. Oshie said. "They play for a full 60 minutes and then they play extra."

The Canucks’ extra effort Thursday was good enough to earn a key victory and assert themselves atop the Western Conference. As Daniel Sedin and others dressed after his clinching goal, a message written in black marker on a dry-erase board near the entrance to the Canucks locker room read, "10:10 BUS."

Even a night that featured mediocre play by their standard included routine. Even a night that featured drama produced another win.


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