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Canucks begin to resemble Cup finalists of old

Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (1) celebrates his 1st shutout of the season with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa (3) following third period NHL hockey action against the Minnszof Wild at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, Dec, 19, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Jonathan Hayward/CP

The Vancouver Canucks are starting to resemble the Stanley Cup finalists from last season as they prepare for their final game before Christmas.

Heading into a home contest against the Calgary Flames on Friday, the Canucks are challenging for the Northwest Division lead and a chance for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Vancouver has lost just three of its past 12 games since Nov. 20, evoking memories of a similar strong run (18-1-3) around this time last year.

"You'd have to say now, for almost six weeks here, our game has been pretty good on most nights," coach Alain Vigneault said this week. "We're not perfect, but on most nights, we play the right way."

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As usual, the Canucks (20-11-2) are getting considerable offensive input from the Sedin twins. Prior to the NHL's games Thursday, Henrik Sedin sat second in NHL scoring with 40 points while Daniel, who led all point-getters last season, had a share of third with 39. (Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers led at 43.)

But Vancouver is also getting offensive help from unlikely sources. Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen have been two of the biggest surprises.

Raymond has seven points in nine games since returning from a fractured vertebrae. He suffered the career-threatening back injury in the Stanley Cup final last spring when Boston Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk sent him backward into the boards. The 26-year-old Cochrane, Alta., native spent months in a body brace before he was able to resume skating, and his ability to walk normally again remained in question.

Hansen, a perennial plugger long known for making great moves in practice but missing gift opportunities in games, has suddenly found scorer's hands. The 25-year-old Dane is on a three-game points streak and has contributed offensively in 10 of the past 15 games while shifting between the first, second and third lines.

Vigneault said Hansen has responded to produce points more often. With 11 goals already this season, Hansen has surpassed the career high of nine he reached twice previously. The winger is also well on his way to surpassing the career-high 29 points he accumulated last season. After 34 games, he is just 10 points shy of his full 2010-11 output.

Meanwhile, versatile forward Chris Higgins has continued to produce consistently despite being on the sidelines recently with a foot infection. With 22 points, he is just six short of the 28 he managed with the Florida Panthers and Canucks last season. The Canucks acquired him at the 2011 trade deadline, becoming his fifth team since 2008-09.

The defence is also doing its part, at both ends of the rink. Since beginning their winning tear with a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 20, the Canucks have allowed 30 fewer goals than they have scored, netting 56 while only surrendering 26.

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Defencemen have also produced points consistently. Alex Edler, on a four-game points streak, is making general manager Mike Gillis look wise for not trying to acquire another high-scoring defenceman after free agent Christian Ehrhoff bolted to the Buffalo Sabres in the off-season. With 24 points, Edler is in position to exceed the 50 that Ehrhoff generated last season while ranking as the club's top offensive defenceman.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo, much maligned as he dealt with his usual October funk and struggling as with an undisclosed upper-body injury in November, is also rounding into form. He has won seven of the past eight games in which has played, boosting his record to 12-6-2 while moving into the league's top 10.

The boos that he heard from the crowd during his struggles have been replaced by the affectionate "Loooo" that was common in previous campaigns but has been much less frequent this season.

"He's been playing real well," Vigneault said. "Both our goaltenders, every night, have been giving us a chance to win – and that's what we need. Teams in the NHL, teams that win consistently, have to get great goaltending, and we've been getting that for quite some time."

Still, fans won't be convinced the Canucks are the team of yesteryear unless they deliver another extended playoff run. But winger Alex Burrows figures the experience of 2010-11 will help the Canucks as they attempt to get back to the Stanley Cup final.

"Those are things nobody can take away from us," Burrows said. "We've been there in high-pressure moments, and most of the time we've responded really well. We know this year is another chance for us to accomplish big things."

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