This season has brought a new feeling for Roberto Luongo, one he knows may not last once the playoffs arrive for the Vancouver Canucks' netminder and his team.
Being the very best.
"It's the first time in my career that I've been at the top of the standings looking down at everybody else," Luongo said. "It's just fun and exciting to come to the rink every day. I think guys are excited about what's ahead of us."
What's directly ahead is a game many around the league have marked on their calendar, a chance to see the two top teams in the Western Conference in the Canucks and Detroit Red Wings go head-to-head in a rivalry that is becoming must-see viewing.
But while Wednesday's meeting is a "big game" in the sense that it involves two Stanley Cup favourites, it's somehow become more of an opportunity to rest banged-up players and test new line combinations.
For Luongo and the Canucks, these final nine games of the season will be more about what comes afterward than adding to their league-leading 103 points in the standings, even in a game against the Red Wings, a potential second- or third-round opponent come late April or May.
"I'm going to try different things considering where we are in the standings," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said of rejigging his lineup without Manny Malhotra, who's out for the season with an eye injury. "I've got the benefit [of having clinched a division title]that I can try a few things. And we'll see how it works out.
"There'll be some good internal competition and we'll see who'll play the best."
If that last part sounds like something an NHL coach would say during training camp, that may be because, in many ways, the 2010-11 regular season has served as one big, long exhibition tune-up for the Canucks.
Getting to 100 points, after all, isn't anything new in Vancouver. After having hit that mark only once in the franchise's first 32 seasons, the Canucks have been in the league's century club in six of the past eight campaigns.
Four of those have come with Luongo in goal, where in 325 regular-season games, he's consistently been one of the NHL's top goaltenders, posting a 188-100-33 record, .919 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average.
Those 188 wins are more than all but the Calgary Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff (192) the past five years, but a deep playoff run has eluded Luongo and his teammates in his first four seasons as a Canuck.
The past two years, Vancouver has been dumped by the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2 - with Luongo coming unglued in key games each time - and as a result, they've learned a few hard lessons as a group.
Luongo and Vigneault, who both arrived in 2006, now seem to wear that lack of postseason success together, and it's something that has become part of the fabric of the team around them.
"You learn throughout the years," Luongo said. "You mature. You learn from certain things that happen. We're all a year older, we've been through a lot. You look around the dressing room, and I think a lot of guys have grown up. Guys like Kess [Ryan Kesler]and Burr [Alex Burrows] they really have a different demeanour about them this year and that's made a big difference."
Whereas in past seasons a 2-0-2 record against the Red Wings in their regular-season series (which Vancouver will get to with a win Wednesday) would have been a considerable accomplishment, it's now only another trial run en route to the games that really matter.
After considerable regular-season success in three out of the last four seasons under this goalie and this coach, it's Stanley Cup or bust for the Canucks.
"I know that on a personal level, this is the closest I've ever been [to a Cup]" said Luongo, who has yet to play beyond the second round with his 32nd birthday only 12 days away. "I mean, this is the best team, bar none, that I've played with.
"We want to make sure we head in [to the playoffs]the right way. Focused and playing our best hockey of the year."
"Everybody on our team, coaches and players, nobody is going to be judged by what we've done in the regular season," Vigneault said. "We're well aware of that."Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: