The panic, sparked by a short slump mid-March, has passed in Vancouver, replaced by the budding promise of springtime hockey.
As of Sunday morning, the Vancouver Canucks were the hottest team in the NHL, winners of six in a row, victories delivered in a tight 10-day span.
It’s all happened without star goal scorer Daniel Sedin, concussed by a brutal elbow to the head from Chicago’s Duncan Keith on March 21. Sedin remains out – he is expected to be ready for the playoffs – and in his absence, Canucks not normally seen on the score sheet have delivered.
It is this display of depth, plus a hardened defensive game, all of it bolstered by two amazing goaltenders, that has the Canucks believing this team is more robust than the one that reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup a year ago.
“That Chicago game really sparked us,” defenceman Chris Tanev said on Friday.
For several games now, Vancouver has rolled four offensive lines, with contributions from everyone, and the defence doesn’t seem to flinch when stalwarts such as Kevin Bieksa take a few days off to rest and recuperate.
The 22-year-old Tanev, a Torontonian who was never drafted, is part of the bolstered defence. He already sports a spotty playoff beard, slight acne, and anchors big ice time, more than 23 minutes against Calgary, close to that of mainstays Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler.
“All of a sudden, you start rolling 12 forwards and six D and you can see how dangerous we can be,” an elated Andrew Ebbett said on Saturday night, the star of the win against Calgary.
Saturday night, as Vancouver eliminated Calgary from the postseason, is a fine example of the new Canucks – less flash, more scrap. Maxim Lapierre scored the opening goal, and the Quebecker who leads the team in penalty minutes has been dubbed by his teammates, Guy, as in Lafleur. Defenceman Marc-André Gragnani blasted in the tying goal, scoring for the first time since he was added at the trade deadline (and only the third goal ever from the 25-year-old). Ebbett deflected home the winner in overtime, the capper in a fine return from injury, his collarbone broken in Boston almost three months ago.
With the wins, the Canucks wrested the No. 1 perch in the Western Conference from the St. Louis Blues and could claim their second straight Presidents’ Trophy. And while home ice is an advantage, the Canucks, for the second consecutive year, have the NHL’s best road record.
Three games are left and the Canucks will probably hit or exceed 110 points. It is not far off the league-topping 117 of last year, but this season feels far less amazing, far less perfect, far more difficult, than did its predecessor.
“Trying to find ways to win hockey games,” coach Alain Vigneault said after Saturday night’s win. “That’s what this group does.”
The Canucks’ seeming lack of dominance comes in part from a weaker third period this season than last. In 2010-11, Vancouver was epic in the third, outscoring opponents 100-58. In 2011-12, the ratio is 76-60.
Vigneault highlighted the team’s play in the first, the best in the NHL. Last season Vancouver gave up the fewest first-period goals, 42, compared with 44 this season, tied for second-best in the league. And the Canucks are scoring more early this season, leading the league with 78 goals.
“Some night it’s prettier than others, some nights it’s more entertaining than others,” Vigneault said. “But one thing about this team is it works real hard, prepares itself real well, just look at the way we usually start games.”