Canucks Starting to Look Like NHL's Best
Vancouver, with numerous lines that can score, a solid stable of defensemen and an elite goaltender, has shot to the top of the standings by going 14-1-2 in the past six weeks. Add that backup goalie Cory Schneider has yet to lose in regulation -- he's starting tonight at HP Pavilion -- plus, Mason Raymond is back after missing 10 games, and he scored the game winner on Sunday night.
This is a team with few weaknesses, it appears.
"We hit a rough patch in November and had a meeting, we had to get back to basics," Schneider said. "We've been taking care of business at our end, we have six great defensemen, we have four lines that can all play. If we play smart, we're a hard team to beat."
"We've been playing well as a team," No. 1 goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "Different guys are contributing, and we need that. You can't have a shutout every night. Sometimes you need the guys on the fourth line to come through."
On Sunday at Colorado, Alex Boldic scored his first career goal, playing on the fourth line, and he also assisted on Raymond's game-winner. Forward Ryan Kesler said that it was good to see Raymond score right away, and, he said, "When you have four lines that can score in this league, that's big."
Kesler is a game-time decision for Monday night. He blocked a shot in the second period Sunday, and he was limping heavily on Monday morning after receiving treatment. He said he'll take part in the pre-game skate, though, and that it would take a lot to keep him out. Asked what he'd say about his chances of playing if he were a betting man, Kesler laughed and said, "I am a betting man, and yes."
The few Canucks at Monday's optional skate were buzzing about the fact that the Avalanche had seven men on the ice at the end of the game, a fact that went unnoticed in the midst of what Schneider called, "chaos."
Winning goalie Luongo didn't hear about the two extra men until after the game, and he said with a grin on Monday morning, "It felt more like they had 12, though. I'm shocked no one noticed it. It's surprising, but nothing happened as a result."
Schneider said that as a backup one of his jobs is to spot things like that, but like everyone else, he was too caught up in the final moments. "How they'd get out there?" he wondered.
Schneider is 6-0-2 this season and, he said, "I've gotten better every game. But this will be a big test for me."
Unlike Vancouver, San Jose has not hit its stride yet. A recent four-game winning streak was followed by a 4-0 loss to the Kings and a 5-3 loss at Minnesota in which the Sharks coughed up the lead in the third period. They're second in the Pacific division, with 47 points.
"Even though Vancouver has that consistency, there's not that many points between us," San Jose defenseman Niclas Wallin said. "I think we should like where we are. We're not that far off. If we play our type of game, we'll be fine."
On the other side, with a win tonight, Vancouver would take over the NHL points lead.
"It doesn't really mean that much," Vancouver defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said, "but obviously it's nice when you're standing on top. We've been coming on strong, it would be nice if we could carry it on."
McLellan said that considering the Canucks' terrific special teams -- Vancouver's power play ranks second, at 24.7 percent, and the penalty kill is third, at 85.5 percent -- his club will have to polish up it's game. "If there's any 'hope' in our game, if we're 'hoping' to get it out of our zone, that's not good enough," he said. "We have to play, 'I know.' "
The only other time the teams have met this year, Vancouver came away with a 6-1 win at home. Wallin knows the difficulties the Canucks present, having played against the Sedin twins in Sweden, but now, he said, "They're so much better. They're guys you can't try to hit in the corner because they'll roll off you, they make plays. I don't know if it's because they're twins, but they always seem to know where each other is. But it's not just them -- they have a lot of good players. That's a good hockey team."
Good enough to finally claim the first Stanley Cup in team history? The Canucks are obviously on a par with the league's top teams right now, and barring major injuries, they might have their best shot in years.
"We're a confident group," Luongo said. "But we know the real dance begins in April. We want to make sure we're ready."