Playoff-hopeful Canucks set for make-or-break February

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Vancouver Canucks right wing Brock Boeser (6) celebrates his goal with teammates. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER — Growing up in suburban Richmond, B.C., Troy Stecher was in his prime as a teenage fan just as the Vancouver Canucks became good.

He was 15 years old when the Canucks faced the Blackhawks in the first installment of an epic, three-year playoff duel between Vancouver and Chicago. Stecher was 17 when the Canucks finally broke through the Blackhawks and went on to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.

So he knows what it’s like when the Canucks are in the playoffs and the West Coast seems to revolve around them.

“It’s so exciting,” he says. “The vibe in the city is different. You can feel the energy, the excitement.”

But he hasn’t felt it as a player.

Stecher is in his third season with the Canucks, and not only has the defenceman yet to play a National Hockey League playoff game, he hasn’t even experienced a legitimate playoff drive.

The Canucks finished near the bottom of the standings in Stecher’s first two seasons. A year ago at this time, they were already 11 points adrift of the final playoff position.

As they begin a four-game road trip Saturday in Denver, the Canucks are tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference even though Vancouver’s record, 23-22-6, is only four points ahead of last year’s pace. It’s the playoff race this year that is way behind.

The Canucks play 14 games in February, nine of them on the road. If they’re still in the playoff race at the end of them, a pile of Vancouver players like Stecher, Ben Hutton, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen will experience for the first time the pressure and intensity of meaningful games in March. It’s the next best thing to playoff games in April.

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With the Canucks starting to emerge from their rebuild, general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green have said repeatedly how important it is for the team’s many young players to experience a real playoff race.

“But we’re not just here to experience things,” Stecher, 24, said. “We want to actually make the playoffs.”

“Playoffs” has been a dirty word in Vancouver for a while.

It connotes failure for previous Canuck collapses and foolishness for thinking that you’ll see the playoffs again any time soon.

It also highlights the divide in the fan base between those who want to see the Canucks win as many games as they can and those – mostly non-ticket buyers, we’re guessing – who’d rather they lose because: Why weaken your draft position when you have no chance to win even if you make the playoffs?

Of course, this ideological blood feud is foreign to the Canucks’ locker room where the players have always said, quietly if not shouted from rooftops, that the playoffs were their goal. Nobody has much believed them.

Even now, it’s hard to think the playoffs are a realistic goal except for the dawdling pace of the race in the Western Conference. The tempo, however, is going to increase and maybe the Canucks will be left behind when it does. After all, Vancouver went 4-8-2 last February and 3-8-1 the previous one.

But this Canucks team, younger and faster and led by wonderboy Pettersson, seemed to shed its worst hockey in November and is 12-6-3 since Dec. 4.

Like it or not, they could be a playoff team.

“The intensity level, you can see already that it’s going up,” Green said. “Everybody is playing for something. Now we get to see how our players play when the heat is on. You have to play your best. And if you don’t play your best, you’re going to stick out.”

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With difficult back-to-back games Monday in Philadelphia and Tuesday in Washington, Green won’t have to wait long to see how his players perform under February fire.

The Canucks were inexplicably leaden the last three games before their nine-day schedule break. But they managed to win two of those games on goaltending to finish a vital homestand 3-1-2. Fully healthy and rested, there’s no reason for the Canucks not to play better. They’ll have to play better to still be in the playoff race come March.

“The whole league is getting more intense at this time of the year,” veteran winger Antoine Roussel said. “It’s harder to get to the net. It’s harder to score. It’s harder for everything. You have to fight through things these last 30 games. The intensity has to come with will. If we make it, we’ll make it because our will will be stronger than the other teams’.”

Roussel said the Canucks have to learn how to win when the games get harder.

“When you’re young, you think everything is going to come easy and you just don’t know any better,” he said. “But I’ve seen what it’s like missing the playoffs by two points, four points. It’s harder than missing the playoffs by 20 points and you know you’re out with 15 games to go. When you’re right in the chase until the last five games and you miss it. . . it sucks all summer. I hope we won’t have that feeling.

“It’s just such a good feeling to make it your first time.”

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