Vancouver Canucks' stretch run to the playoffs fuels feisty Maxim Lapierre
When the Vancouver Canucks reconvened recently after a weeklong layoff for the National Hockey League all-star break, no one was happier to get back to work than forward Maxim Lapierre. It’s not that the grinding centre doesn’t enjoy a break or that he missed his teammates so much he couldn’t wait to see them again.
The reason Lapierre was excited is that the NHL is now into its stretch run to the playoffs—the final two months of the regular season when both the intensity and importance of the games escalate. And it’s from now until the end of the season that the 26-year-old Saint-Léonard, Quebec, native believes he can make his greatest contribution to the hockey club.
“I think I really appreciate this time of year because games are so tight and you’re always fighting for different spots in the standings,” Lapierre tells the Straight in an interview in the Canucks locker room after a recent practice at Rogers Arena. “I think this is the type of game I can play better from now on to the end of the playoffs.”
Acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline last February, Lapierre played a key role in the Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup final last spring. Brought in as a depth forward, he was pressed into duty as the team’s third-line centre to fill the void created after Manny Malhotra suffered a serious eye injury.
This year, with the emergence of rookie Cody Hodgson in the middle on the team’s third line, Lapierre has been a fixture as the team’s fourth-line centre, a key contributor as a penalty killer, and a guy who has a knack for driving opposing players wild. Through 50 games, Lapierre was second on the Canucks in face-off percentage, winning 53.9 percent of the draws he had taken, and was the runaway team leader in hits with 148 (ranking 13th in the league) and penalty minutes (91).
And between taking runs at opponents and following these up with some trash talk accompanied by a maniacal grin that seems to infuriate people, it should come as no surprise that Lapierre has engaged in six fights this season. The scraps come with the territory when you play the way he does. He’s not so concerned with being a tough guy as he is with being a tough opponent to play against.
“I really appreciate my role here—I want to go out there and bring some energy and finish my hits and play good defensively,” he explains. “If I can go out there and block a shot, finish a hit, win some face-offs, those are the main things, but to be honest, the only thing that matters is to win hockey games.”
That’s why Lapierre likes this time of year so much. With teams jockeying for position in the standings, regular-season games take on the feel of the playoffs. And no one in the Canucks locker room has played more postseason hockey the past two springs than Maxim Lapierre.
In 2010, he was part of an upstart Montreal Canadiens team that advanced to the NHL’s Eastern Conference final. And last year, he suited up for all 25 games the Canucks played on their run to the final. On a team that struggled to find its offence against the Boston Bruins, Lapierre tied for the team lead in goals in the final series (2), including the only goal in a 1-0 Game 5 victory that put the Canucks within reach of the first Cup in franchise history.
The series didn’t end the way Lapierre or the Canucks wanted it to, but it has provided plenty of motivation to make amends this time around. And with Lapierre now playing the role that was originally intended for him, the Canucks appear to be a deeper and better-balanced team than they were 12 months ago.
And although there is no question that the battle to get through—and, ultimately, out of—the Western Conference will be fierce, the Canucks have put themselves in a position once again to make a charge for the Stanley Cup.
“It’s a great organization with great teammates,” Lapierre says. “It’s a team thing here in Vancouver. Everybody is working for each other. You see in every game there is someone that shines, and it’s great to be part of this group.”
If there is a concern surrounding Lapierre’s game right now, it’s that his offence has run dry. Although not expected to light it up on a regular basis, Lapierre showed in the playoffs that he can chip in on occasion. But after scoring the Canucks’ first goal this season and notching a pair of goals in a victory over Washington in late October, Lapierre has gone more than 20 games (and almost two months) without so much as a single point.
He knows he is contributing in other ways, but he also realizes that the truly elite teams expect to get offence throughout their lineups.
“If once in a while we can score some goals, obviously, it’s fun, but our main goal remains to bring some energy,” he says of his current offensive struggles. “If we get some scoring chances, you want to put one in once in a while, but the main thing is to win some games.”
The ultimate goal is to win 16 games from mid-April through mid-June. Last year, Lapierre and the Canucks managed to win only 15. That means there is some unfinished business for the hockey club. And Lapierre can’t wait to roll up his sleeves and get to work. After all, this is his time to shine. This is his time to make a difference.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.