Canucks begin important four-game Canadian road trip

The Canadian Press
2/16/2009 7:29:36 PM
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VANCOUVER - Vancouver Canucks are healthy and winning and want to attach a made-in-Canada label to the next phase of their quest for an NHL playoff berth.

That starts Tuesday night in Calgary when they begin a four-game road trip, all against Canadian teams.

Being healthy makes them different from the team that won only two of 11 games in January, said general manager Mike Gillis, who watched Monday's practice from the GM Place stands.

Since then, they've won five of six.

"The coaches feel with a solid, healthy lineup they have all the options in front of them and they're putting line combinations together they think work," Gillis said in an interview.

Except for a minor setback from the flu, Mats Sundin, the biggest free-agent acquisition in club history, is rounding into shape.

Pavol Demitra, another Gillis acquisition, has returned from a groin injury to play on Sundin's line and quarterback the power play.

Kyle Wellwood, the pudgy reclamation project who's a former Toronto Maple Leaf like Sundin, is skating well and distributing the puck on the third line.

And all-star goalie Roberto Luongo, with wins in five straight starts, is becoming his stingy self, finding his groove after a serious groin injury.

After Sunday's 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver is back in the Western Conference playoff picture after losing eight in a row in January.

"Every team goes through a downturn throughout a season and I think we've been through ours," said Luongo.

"Now we can really focus on playing our game and collecting wins. Every game we have the confidence we can win no matter if we're ahead or trailing."

The Canucks began Monday fifth in the West but were only two points ahead of ninth-place Edmonton. They're also nine points behind Northwest Division-leading Calgary.

"It's an important game for us to keep them within reach and they know we feel that way," defenceman Willie Mitchell said of Tuesday's date with the Flames.

Then it's on to Ottawa for a Thursday game against the 4-1-1 Senators under new coach Cory Clouston.

Sundin, with eight points in his last six games, leads Vancouver into Toronto on Saturday. The Canucks end their tour in Luongo's home town of Montreal on Feb. 24.

Gillis said his club is motivated and ready.

"We're coming off a good stretch of games," he said as players exchanged trash talk and playful shoves during two-on-one drills.

"The spacing of the games is good and I think we're really going to play well."

It's a long way from January where the team was booed off the ice, sticks got up in practice and the shoves had some venom behind them.

Gillis said that was because players tried too hard as the Canucks battled injuries.

"We had guys getting caught up the rink trying too hard, two guys attacking one puck carrier. Most of it comes out of the fact that you're short-handed." 

Part of the turnaround was Sudin shaking off the rust of inactivity and bringing quiet leadership.

"The behind the scenes stuff that he does, that he brings to the rink every day is an incredible opportunity for the young players who can watch and learn every day," Gillis said.

"To see a new guy come into the group who is committed and dedicated as he is a really good lesson for them." 

Sundin didn't know how fans will react in Toronto where he was a captain and became the Leafs' all-time leading scorer.

He left after Toronto wanted him to waive his no-trade clause at last season's trading deadline, saying he's not a rental player. But critics say he's just that, signing with Vancouver in December for a pro-rated $US8.26 million a season.

"I don't expect anything," Sundin said.

"All I know is that I played 13 years in Toronto. I still consider it part of my home. I still have a house there. It's going to be fun coming back. I have a lot of friends in Toronto. It's going to be an emotional night, I'm sure."

The dieting Wellwood, with a career-high 14 goals, isn't worried about his reception.

"I think I'm going to get overshadowed by Mats," he said.

One blemish on the Canucks' recent play has been the 25th-ranked penalty kill which surrendered 16 power-play goals in the 10 games prior to Sunday.

"We've got the personnel to easily be in the top third." said coach Alain Vigneault. "We were No. 1 a couple of years ago so there's no reason not to get back to those standards."

NOTES: The Canucks made a similar trip in January 2007 when they went 3-0-1 and outscored Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa 12-2 ... defenceman Sami Salo missed practice to rest a hamstring.

Mats Sundin (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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