If nothing else, the Vancouver Canucks should find some comfort in having been down this road so many times before.
They’ve had first round wins; they’ve endured first round losses, and seen 3-0 first-round leads nearly blown (see Chicago: 2011).
Only Vancouver has given us a goalie in Roberto Luongo who couldn’t get off the biffy in overtime of a Round 2 playoff game (2007). Eventually he returned, only to let in the winner while his arm was raised to signify a penalty — which the actual referees never called.
They’ve lost on centre-ice bombs by Hall of Famers (Nick Lidstrom), and won on a seeing eye long-ranger by Kevin Bieksa that Antti Niemi is still searching for.
They’ve even seen the Stanley Cup carried around Rogers Arena, though alas, we all know how that sentence ends.
“Like Coach V. says: We’re battle tested,” said Bieksa of his head coach, Alain Vigneault.
Pick your cliché: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; you learn something new every day; you learn more from losing from winning…
“I don’t about that (last one),” Vigneault winked. “I think you can learn plenty from winning too.”
Vancouver has done that too, to the point where five consecutive Northwest Division titles is glossed over by the critics who wonder if Vancouver can ever win The Big One.
Coming into a first round series against San Jose, another team that has mastered “good” yet still faces the challenge of becoming “great,” it’s time to watch the Canucks take another kick at the proverbial cat (sorry, PETA).
“We’ve been together for a long time, this core group, and we want to prove that we can win this thing together. That’s why they kept us here,” said Daniel Sedin, who suddenly is pushing birthday No, 33 in September.
Even more disconcerting, so too is his brother Henrik.
“We realize too, we’re getting older. The chances might not be there,” Daniel said. “You never know what’s going to happen — injuries, anything. Right now we have the group… I like our team.”
There is never a question whether the Canucks have a chance; if they are a team that, with the right combination of breaks, health and production could become that Los Angeles Kings team that puts it all together at the perfect time.
But Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy in both 2011 and 2012 and could not find the tonic. Now this is the fifth straight playoff appearance for this group — all beginning as a Top 3 seed in the Western Conference.
When does it happen? The question is fair.
Perhaps this season, the one that has presented more adversity than any in recent memory, will produce the team that can truly overcome when it all counts — in May and June.
“We understand that we’re in our window, and we’re ready for the opportunity and the challenge,” began Vigneault. “Personnel-wise we were really challenged (this season). We basically didn’t have a second line all year long. We still found a way to win games, still won our Division and got home ice.
“Experience hurts sometimes. Playing through pressure moments,” he continued. “When I say we’re battle tested, we’ve gone through the highs and lows, and the pressure situations. Being up 3-0 on Chicago, then going to a Game 7, then giving up a goal (Jonathan Toews short-handed, to tie the game and force OT) with two minutes left.
“Experience is hard to get. You learn through that, and hopefully you can put it all together at the right time. I’m confident this group can.”
The keys, from where we sit, are threefold:
Kevin Bieksa is the physical heartbeat of this team. On a club that still wants for some grit and toughness, his input in those areas is paramount. If whatever injury Bieksa has recently recovered from fells him, the Canucks are in serious trouble.
Ryan Kesler: It’s been an injury-plagued season for Kesler, the one player who can make an opposing coach think twice about smothering the Sedins with his best checkers. Kesler brings a vital second wave of playoff-brand offence. Players follow Kesler out of the trench, so to speak. If he’s unable to lead, it will be fatal for Vancouver.
Cory Schneider: Another key player coming in nicked up. If he gets hurt, or doesn’t stop enough pucks, it’s Luongo’s turn. With that would come much drama, and with Luongo’s pride wounded in the season finale at Edmonton, we’re not sure this edition of the Canucks can survive on anything less than stellar netminding from their No. 1.
“We want to learn from the past, and most of the time you learn from your bad experiences,” summed up Luongo. “If you can learn from those, and grow, it will make us a better team.”
The time for learning has passed. In Vancouver, the time for doing is now.
We’re not sure they’re Stanley Cup material, but we’ll see Vancouver through to Round 2 — just barely.