Northwest-leading Canucks clicking at the right time

TSN.ca Staff
4/1/2009 2:18:41 PM
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Two months ago, the Calgary Flames were the powerhouse of the Northwest Division with a 13-point lead over Vancouver.

That was just enough time for the Canucks to play catch-up.

With a nail-biting 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, the Canucks reclaimed the top spot in the Northwest for the first time since Dec. 14.
"Back in January not many people thought we'd be in the spot we are, but we've worked hard for where we are," said goaltender Roberto Luongo on Tuesday. "We need to make sure here in the last few games that we keep pushing and try to get that third seed."

Vancouver now has 93 points on the season and is one point ahead of idle Calgary for first in the Northwest. Both clubs have six games to play, including a head-to-head matchup in Vancouver next Tuesday. Regardless of who finishes on top of the division and grabs that coveted No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, the Canucks have served notice to the rest of the league that they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.

"It's very important. Now we're in charge of our own destiny," Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said Tuesday. "The division is up to us to have now, it's not up to whether Calgary wins or loses. It's been a long time since we've had a hold of it."

And the Canucks have been endured plenty of ups and downs since the last time they were on top. The team was on the highest of highs on Dec. 18 when they landed coveted centre Mats Sundin. The 17-year NHL veteran has been a great addition on and off the ice - and nowhere is it more evident than in the 21-10-4 record they have with him in the lineup.

But Sundin's first few games in a Vancouver uniform weren't too pleasant, especially with Luongo out of the lineup with a groin injury. The Canucks' captain missed almost two months of action from Nov. 24 to Jan. 15 and the team struggled with an 11-14-3 mark leaning on Curtis Sanford, Cory Schneider and Jason LaBarbera.

But when their franchise goaltender returned, the Canucks quickly emerged as the best team in Western Conference in the second half. Led by Luongo, Sundin, and the Sedin twins, the club has been nearly unbeatable - especially at home where they are currently on a franchise-best 11-game winning streak.

"The twins this past month when we've had 15 games to play have been our top production guys," Canucks coach Alex Vigneault said. "They've done it in pressure moments, and that's good for us with the playoffs around the corner."

And with a hot streak going in the second half, the temptation and pressure was certainly there for general manager Mike Gillis to improve his playoff chances at the trade deadline. But the first-year executive stood pat on Mar. 4, opting to stay with the lineup he had. Gillis took a bit of heat for not making an upgrade, especially when reports surfaced that he was close to landing star defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.

"I asked him (Panthers GM Jacques Martin) what he needed in return, and he told me and it was undoable," Gillis said last month. "If we can't improve our team, why would we just spend money? We made every attempt to do what we could do to improve the team. I was completely prepared to spend every cent of that money if the right deal was there."

That being said, Gillis' players responded they best way they could - with an impressive 9-3-1 record since the trade deadline. And it's not just the stars of the team that are leading the way.

Alex Burrows has earned playing time on the Canucks' No. 1 with the Sedin twins and the trio has tallied 19 goals and 41 points over Vancouver's last 11 games. With 26 goals this season, the Montreal native is second behind Daniel Sedin in goals scored and has more than doubled the career high in his young career.

Kesler, who was penciled in as an energy player at the start of the season, has developed great chemistry on the second line with veterans Sundin and Pavol Demitra.

"It's a dangerous team when they are firing on all cylinders, which they are now," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after a 4-0 loss to the Canucks on Sunday.

While the Canucks focus on winning now, there's also the underlying knowledge that their window to contend could be very small. Sundin, the twins and defenceman Mattias Ohlund could test the open market in July, while Luongo's contract expires after next season.

Daniel and Henrik, who are expected to stay together when they sign with a team, appear to be a top priority for the club once the season ends.   

"At this point, we're focusing on the playoff run and so are they," Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman told the Vancouver Province last month. "These are not time sensitive issues.

"The bottom line is we had ongoing discussions for a long time. They are very good players who have been in the organization for a long time. We want to keep them in the organization. I'm hopeful that we'll get something done. They have been clear from Day 1 they are happy with Vancouver and they'd like to stay."

But on the West Coast right now, everyone would rather talk about the present. The Canucks are ready to make some noise.

Alex Burrows (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)


(Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
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