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Canucks brace for lone visit to Death Valley

Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Rogers Arena on Jan. 4, 2011.

Anne-Marie Sorvin/US PRESSWIRE/Anne-Marie Sorvin/US PRESSWIRE

The Vancouver Canucks' failure in the hostile environs of TD Garden in Boston last June was total: three losses to the Bruins, outscored 17-3, blowing series leads of 2-0 and 3-2, before the Stanley Cup favourites collapsed at home, sparking a riot, among the worst in continental sports history.

The shattering loss plagued Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who would wake up several times a night in the weeks after Boston won the Cup.

Henrik Sedin, the Vancouver captain, thinks about it every day he laces on skates.

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"The feeling to lose in the finals, that comes up, pops up, pretty much every day when you come down to the rink," Sedin said Wednesday after a 2-0 win over Minnesota.

But the Canucks, who face Boston for the only time this season Saturday, at the harrowing Garden, do not appear plagued by dark memories. Perhaps the good spirits are due in part to climbing to first place in the NHL on Wednesday night. Perhaps to using technology such as the so-called MindRoom, a psychological decompression chamber brought in by innovative club president Mike Gillis.

The elder Sedin twin – leading the league in scoring after Wednesday night, his younger brother Daniel tied for second – doesn't seem tortured by the Cup debacle. "It's something that's in the back of your head but, again, we're a team that looks ahead, and we've got a different team this year. As a group, we're as good, if not better."

Boston is definitely better, led by 37-year-old goalie Tim Thomas, who stops even more pucks than he did during last season's Vézina- and Conn Smythe-winning season. Before Thursday night's games, Boston was just two points behind Vancouver with five games in hand. Thomas is having his best season yet, a 1.90 goals-against average and a 0.940 save percentage. It's better than last year's amazing 2.00 and 0.938, better than any season Martin Brodeur ever had and rivals the best of Dominik Hasek.

Thomas is playing "scary" good, conceded Daniel Sedin, who played down Saturday's game. "Game 42 of the season. That's the way we look at it."

Boston leads the league in goals scored per game, a category Vancouver led last year, with Boston fifth. Boston's record at even strength is probably the most indicative of its power. Its goals for-against ratio is 1.94, leading the league again, with a big gap ahead of No. 2 Detroit at 1.72. Vancouver is sixth at 1.24.

Toughness will be closely watched, given that Boston roughed up Vancouver in June to the point where it seemed the finely tuned offence was in complete, and feeble, disarray.

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But Vancouver has toughened notably, even if cries from fans for an enforcer were ignored by Gillis. Vancouver has three of the top 60 hitters in the league this season, Max Lapierre, Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa. Last year Vancouver had only one player, Lapierre, in the top 60 hitters.

The Sedins, too, have become more aggressive. They have as many hits this season as all of last year, ranking about 350th among 550 or so forwards, up from about 450th last year.

And while Boston is the second-most penalized team, and second in fighting majors, Vancouver is fifth in penalties and seventh in fighting majors, getting scrappier compared with 18th in penalties and 23rd in fighting majors last season.

Much blame for the Cup loss has been heaped on goalie Roberto Luongo, especially by brittle Vancouver fans who were exasperated with his poor play in Boston. The Sedins, however, know the key factor in the Cup final loss was their lack of scoring. Vancouver put in just eight in seven games.

"We know we're going to have to play better than we did in the finals," Henrik Sedin said. "I mean, we lost because we couldn't score, and that's a tough thing to" – he paused, choosing his words – "carry. But we look forward to the game. Like I said, [Thomas]is no different than other goalies: if you get enough shots, we get good traffic, he's beatable."

It has not yet been decided who will start in the Vancouver net. Luongo was pillaged in June in Boston but has been playing well and is coming off a shutout against tough Minnesota. Impressive backup Cory Schneider grew up in the Boston area and has started only two of the past 11 games. One theory suggests Luongo would benefit from a relatively unimportant game to excise any demons. Another suggestion is that a rest would benefit Luongo and there is no need to shove him into a maw of prying questions over fading memories.

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On Wednesday night, 32-year-old Luongo was happy to savour a shutout in his 700th NHL game, his stats now basically equally to his five previous Canucks seasons, after a slow start.

"We're going to enjoy tonight, the win, and we'll focus on Boston tomorrow."

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