Two weeks ago, when the Vancouver Canucks rolled over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Canucks found themselves in a place the team once knew well: first place in the National Hockey League.
The standing was brief – the next day, other teams hopped by the Canucks. Vancouver then slid some more in the past week, as Vancouver lost the last three games of a long road trip. But the team's performance in the first third of this season has been far better than anyone predicted.
There is no single reason. Goaltending has been solid but sometimes so-so or worse. The Sedins produce points against the weakest teams but otherwise have been ho-hum. There is, however, alchemy at work, even if it's not quantifiable. A team that is much happier as a group has fared better than it managed to this point a year earlier.
One essential difference in this year's first 29 games is the Canucks are scoring more – and closing out games. When they get a lead, they keep it, and in the third period they fend off counterattacks.
It adds up to an 18-9-2 record that has Vancouver, as of midday Thursday, second in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference. Last season after 29 games, the team was fifth in the Pacific and ninth in the West, with a 14-10-5 record.
And now the team is home, after a gruelling two-week, seven-game road trip. The early Christmas gift is an easy schedule ahead: only four games over the next two weeks, three of them against teams in the lower half of the standings.
The Canucks this season have held on to leads much more tightly than in the first third of last season. If Vancouver leads or is tied after one period, it is 16-2-1, compared with 11-4-2 last year. In one-goal games, the Canucks are undefeated and second-best in the NHL, at 8-0-2; last year, they had won as many one-goal games as they had lost to this point – 8-3-5. The key has been to score in the third. The Canucks this year have been outscored in the first period 16-22 but in the third have outscored opponents 31-21.
A power play with some power
The penalty kill is great, again, ceding even fewer shots than last year's excellent work. And the power play is revived. Last year, the coaches had no real track record of success on the power play. New coach Willie Desjardins ran one of the best power plays in the American Hockey League for two seasons. It shows: The Canucks are putting fewer shots on net than last year but scoring more, a shooting percentage of 13.6 per cent compared with 8.7 per cent.
Last year, the Canucks had a .400 winning percentage when they outshot opponents. This year, it's .684.
A year ago, the Canucks gave up more goals at even strength than they scored, a for-against ratio of 0.93. The problem remains, with a ratio of 0.95 so far.
More goals in total, however
Canucks average three a game, up from 2.66 at this point last season. That number slumped to 2.33 by the end, as the Canucks scored the fewest goals for a full season in club history.