There was no spray of champagne Saturday night in Vancouver.
In the Canucks locker room, there were, however, white ball caps emblazoned with the Presidents’ Trophy, the team logo and 2012, marking the team’s second consecutive year on top of the table at the end of the NHL’s regular season.
The hats were not popular items. There is really only one thing the Vancouver Canucks set out to win this season. There are 16 wins to go. The first game comes Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s not the big one, the hat we want to wear,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo after the game, a 3-0 win over Edmonton, the 60th shutout of his career as Vancouver rolled into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning eight of the last nine.
Since the riotous night of June 15, nearly 10 months ago, the failure to win the Stanley Cup has loomed over a team that was up 2-0, and 3-2, on the Boston Bruins, before collapsing on home ice in Game 7. As the 2012 playoffs begin, with the Canucks again among the favourites to make the long run to June, Luongo evoked the picture of a group of young men who are far more ready, hardened and hardier, than a year ago.
“For what we went through last year, we’re a stronger team, as far as controlling our emotions, how to handle things, especially when things are not going well,” said Luongo. “We’re better prepared as a team to go through the process.”
One unanswered question remains the status of Daniel Sedin. The Canucks have suggested the concussed goal scorer will be ready for the playoffs. No evidence has been provided.
The long 2011-12 regular season started with a Cup hangover: the Canucks went 9-9-1 in their first 19 games. Even as wins came, the team was often imperfect, as the Canucks seemed to scrape together victories, hardly dominating opponents. But the wins piled up. Later in the year, the power play died. Yet buoyed by a late run – sparked after Sedin’s head took a vicious elbow from Chicago’s Duncan Keith – Vancouver once again has home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
From October to April, over 82 games, the Canucks never lost more than two in a row.
Their first playoff opponent appears less fearsome than Chicago in the first round a year ago. But Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault warned that each team in the Western Conference is capable of making a long run this spring. L.A. is backstopped by a likely Vézina finalist – netminder Jonathan Quick – and has a revived offence, though its output likely depends on the health of Jeff Carter. Vancouver and L.A. were closely matched during the season: three of their four games were decided by a single goal.
A single goal: 11 of Vancouver’s last 15 games were decided by this narrowest of margins, and the Canucks won eight of the 11.
“All year we’ve had a quiet confidence,” centre Ryan Kesler said. “We know the type of team we have in here, and we know what we’re capable of. And we don’t let things rattle us.”
The power play remains an issue. Vancouver potted two man-advantage goals, on seven chances, against Edmonton on Saturday, but the power play has otherwise been very weak since January. In last year’s playoffs, the power play mattered a lot, as Vancouver was outscored on even strength.
On the health front, the team is solid, save for the unknown condition of Daniel Sedin. Injuries plagued Vancouver as the Canucks advanced through the rounds last spring.
In net, Luongo gets the start in Game 1 against L.A. Thereafter, should he be shaky, the Canucks have stellar backup Cory Schneider at the ready.
Captain Henrik Sedin expressed confidence in Luongo, who is only the 16th goalie in hockey history to record 60 shutouts, joining a list made up almost wholly of Hall of Famers.
“We’re hoping,” Sedin said, “that he’s going to play every game.”