Canucks trying to figure out if they’re real as a playoff contender

SAN JOSE, Calif. – It’s proof how much the Vancouver Canucks have improved and raised expectations since last season that a week in which the team has gone 2-2 is considered a dip in form.

Last season, going 2-2 over six days, with one win against the Stanley Cup champion and another on the road against a division rival would have caused people on the West Coast to repaint their homes blue and green and rename children Bo – boys and girls.

Last spring, the Canucks lost their final eight games – and that merely matched their worst streak of the National Hockey League season. They scored one goal or less in 27 of 82 games, were shut out four times in one five-game stretch and trailed 1-0 53 times.

So, we can understand why new Canucks coach Travis Green was protective and just a little bit prickly Friday over the characterization that the Canucks weren’t playing well enough even before they were hammered 4-1 the night before by the Anaheim Ducks.

The Canucks got a couple of bounces and some big saves from Jacob Markstrom to beat the Calgary Flames 5-3 Tuesday while being outshot 32-21. The game before that Vancouver was sloppy in a 3-2 home loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Two nights before that, Markstrom led the Canucks to a 4-2 win against the champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a terrific game that saw Vancouver outshot 39-21.

When the erosion in Canucks execution was starkly exposed Thursday by the Ducks, Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin admitted: “It’s been a game coming for us. I don’t think we’ve been playing well for three or four games at least.”

And certainly not as well as the Canucks played in the second half of October, when they exited with a record of 6-3-2 that nobody foresaw.

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It’s against that form that the Canucks are now measured, although Green was suspicious of the measuring stick used in his press scrum after Vancouver’s energetic practice here. The Canucks play Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks, another Pacific Division rival who didn’t expect to be chasing Vancouver in the standings.

“To get hung up on one or two games, or one or two wins,” Green said after some serve-and-volley over semantics. “… We just have to stay the course and be honest with our effort, honest with our group. ‘Own your game’ is a phrase I like to use. So far, I think we’ve been honest and the players have been honest with themselves.”

When asked about his players’ need to respond to the Anaheim performance, Green said: “I would hope that they play better than they did last night. We weren’t very good. For me, it was our worst game of the season. [But] it’s a long season. You’re going to have games that you’re not very good. There’s a learning process. And you have to learn when you play bad.”

What everyone can agree upon is that the Canucks stunk in Anaheim, where they struggled to get the puck, keep it when they had it, and play in their own zone both with and without the puck.

Green wondered Friday where the critical questioning was leading.

Sometimes even we don’t know. But why this week is important is that the Canucks, although they earned their October accolades and deserved their record, haven’t shown that those two good weeks at the end of the month were anything more than an unsustainable surge against teams they surprised.

When Anaheim defenceman Kevin Bieksa was asked Thursday morning about the fast start by his former club, he said wryly: “Like last year.”

You see, the Canucks started 5-0 last season despite rarely leading, then backed it up with a nine-game winless streak from which they never recovered.

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So Bieksa, like everyone else around the NHL, naturally wonders about the validity of the Canucks as a playoff contender. And that’s why this week is important, and this game in San Jose is important.

“You have to bounce back,” winger Sam Gagner said. “A few games ago we were playing really well, but didn’t win a couple of those games. Then the game slips, but we find a way to get a couple of wins. It’s just a matter of not letting it slide too far and coming back next game with the right approach. We’ve talked about that as a group – not letting things slide.”

Winger Loui Eriksson practised Friday with the Sedins in place of Jake Virtanen and is expected to play for the first time since spraining his knee four weeks ago. Backup goalie Anders Nilsson has also re-joined the team after the birth of his son, Loui (no, not named after his teammate), although it appears Green will start Markstrom a sixth straight game.

Eriksson, who has scored just 11 goals in 69 games since signing a $36-million contract in Vancouver, is far from the only Canuck trying to prove something.

“I’ve never won a Cup and I don’t think anyone in our room has,” veteran winger Thomas Vanek said. “Until you prove anything in this league, you’re nothing. A new group like this, we’ve got to learn to forget about the good games and, especially, the bad ones. [Thursday] wasn’t good enough. We’re going to have more of those games. But what are you going to do about it next game?”

Precisely.