Vancouver Canucks' confidence ignites stretch drive
This year's squad might not match the 2006-07 team's point total, but there's a sense that it could last longer in the playoffs
At the time, it was considered the greatest stretch of hockey the Vancouver Canucks had ever played: the club rattled off 32 wins over its final 46 games just two seasons ago, en route to franchise records for victories and points and a Northwest Division championship. People who had followed the Canucks since the day the team joined the National Hockey League in 1970 had never seen anything like it. And after waiting 37 years, they couldn't have been foolish enough to think they'd see anything like it again.
And yet, with a determined 3–1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on March 7, this year's edition of the Canucks recorded its 12th win in a 14-game stretch and showed no signs of slowing down. The team two years ago accomplished much, but at no point during its run did it ever manage to win 12 of 14, the way this group has.
Now, based strictly on the number of games remaining on the schedule, this year's team is going to be hard-pressed to match the 49 wins and 105 points that the 2006–07 team recorded. But with the club heating up again as it hits the stretch run, inside the locker room it's beginning to feel like 2007 all over again. And a sense exists among the players who have been part of both runs that this year's team is actually better than the group that set those marks.
“Definitely. That's exactly what it feels like,” Canuck captain Roberto Luongo, the backbone of the franchise two years ago, told the Georgia Straight after a practice at GM Place. “We're having fun right now, and when we go out there we expect to win every night. And we demand a lot out of each other, and that's the type of accountability we want to have in this room. We're all working hard, and it's paying off for us.”
In 2007, Luongo—a finalist for both the Hart and Vezina trophies—was up to almost every challenge thrown his way, but even he would admit the Canucks leaned too heavily on their goaltender back then. Seventeen of the 32 wins in the second half of that season were by one goal, as the hockey club scraped together just enough offence to get Luongo a lead and then asked him to do the rest. Fortunately for the hockey club, he did almost every night.
Over the past six weeks, the Canucks have given Luongo more frequent and larger leads to work with, and for the most part have held their opponents' shot totals to reasonable standards. Luongo is back on his form of two years ago, but the group in front of him is playing a far more complete game than it did then.
“Obviously, Louie is going to be the difference most nights,” emerging scoring sensation Alex Burrows said of Luongo. “He's our number one player. He's our star, he's our leader. But right now I think we have a little bit more offence than we did two years ago. Back then, we won a lot of games 2–1, but now we have an ability to score more goals, so if we're trailing we've shown that we can come back. And I just think we're a more confident team than we were two years ago.”
Despite its many accomplishments, that 2007 team saw the start of sharp declines in the play of veterans Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison, and included the likes of journeymen Jan Bulis, Jeff Cowan, and Josh Green as regular players. It was also without the services of Ryan Kesler, who played just one game after the all-star break that season, because of hip and finger injuries.
This year's group—led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin and aided offensively by Mats Sundin, Pavol Demitra, Kesler, and Burrows—appears to have considerably better top-end talent and a better mix of veterans among the bottom six forwards. Plus, it has the experiences of 2007 to draw on as it attempts to maintain its momentum and play the final month of the season the way it has played since the start of February.
Alain Vigneault, who was named coach of the year following his team's strong second half in 2007, acknowledges some similarities in his two teams, but he'd like to see a much different ending this time around, after the Canucks were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago.
“The consistency of our guys, with their preparation and work ethic, is paying off right now, and we need it to continue,” the head coach said. “It's a fun battle, and we need it [the recent success] to continue. Hopefully, guys aren't thinking too much about two years ago and are focusing on right now and the games coming up.”
Canuck fans may remember the second half of that 2006–07 season fondly. But Vigneault and his team are hoping they've started something special now—something that will evolve into the greatest stretch of hockey the Vancouver Canucks have ever played.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.