We refer so often to a team that has “been there” that it has become cliché. And every once in a while, you get tangible evidence of what that experience is worth.
“There,” for the Vancouver Canucks, isn’t just a trip to the 2011 Stanley Cup final. It is their stature as a Western power for most of the past decade, having won the past four Northwest Division flags and six of the last eight.
And they’ll likely win another this season, though on the night of March 18 – when the Minnesota Wild rode through Rogers Arena and squarely beat the Canucks 3-1 – we weren’t so sure about these Canucks.
The score was 1-1 after 40 minutes, in a game between co-leaders of the Northwest. Then the Wild walked away with the third period, scoring twice and pushing the Canucks right out of the contest.
It was a statement game for the Wild, and on that night, it looked like two ships passing in opposite directions. Who knew then, that was exactly what it was?
Minnesota would somehow fade after that, and the Canucks took off. They’re five games away from another Division title, and another run at the elusive silver spittoon.
“We learned in 2011,” began assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, “it’s not always the best team that wins the Stanley Cup. It’s the team that’s playing the best at that time. Part of that is staying healthy, getting some breaks along the way, and having exceptional goaltending.”
When you have won as consistently as this team has, one tough loss doesn’t turn into four or five the way it does in some other towns. In fact, Vancouver won its next six straight, lost a couple, then took five of the next six. Tonight, the Canucks roll into Dallas with five games to play and a four-point bulge atop the Northwest, a Western power rounding nicely into form.
Watch Canucks vs. Stars on Sportsnet Pacific at 5:30 pm PT
So, what changed? We’ll give you 17 reasons.
“I can’t oversell the impact of having Ryan Kesler – a health Ryan Kesler – back,” Gilman said over the phone. “As much as our players have done a tremendous job, not having him in our lineup impacts our team on multiple levels.
“He’s the top second line centre in the league; he is the catalyst for the secondary scoring on our team. Without Ryan, teams have been able to key on the twins. And in addition to all of that, he’s a vital part of our powerplay, our penalty killing, and he can check the opposing teams’ top line.”
So you could say that it is unfair to judge a Canucks team that doesn’t have Kesler in its lineup, as has been the case for all but 12 nights this season. Of course, the scary thing for Vancouver becomes what if he gets hurt again?
Even with Derek Roy coming in, the Canucks are one team with Kesler, and quite another without him.
It’s not like in goal, where if one goaltender goes down they have one in waiting who is arguably just as good.
And that brings us to the other wildcard – the goaltending.
Its primary purpose – stopping pucks, winning games – cannot be doubted. And despite the fact that we all predicted it would be distraction this season, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo have co-existed nicely.
What if one fails in the playoffs? Well, history tells us that the switch would be seamless, both in the level of drama and ability to win games.
Despite the fact you’d rather have value for Luongo in a top-six forward, in the end, there isn’t another team in the NHL that has backup goaltending like Vancouver does.
“This has been managed by Alain (head coach Vigneault) and our players, and most importantly by Cory and Roberto all year long,” praised Gilman. “We’ve got two exceptional goalies. Either one can play in any game in the playoffs and our team would know it has a great chance to win.
“At this point there is not a single bad element that comes from that situation.”
They’ll get Bieksa, Tanev and Higgins back from injury, and Vancouver will contend.
Are they a top echelon team out West? Well, they have been before it did not translate into a Stanley Cup.
Perhaps running with the pack will favour the Canucks this time around.