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Ebner: Division rivals await Canucks as Pacific litmus test arrives

Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Edler, of Sweden, from left to right, Kevin Bieksa, Zack Kassian, Darren Archibald and Brad Richardson celebrate Kassian's goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during second period NHL hockey action in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday November 2, 2013.

The Canadian Press

The Vancouver Canucks' long stretch of success in the now-defunct Northwest Division has been summarized in the rafters of Rogers Arena.

Where there were once banners for each season the Canucks won the easy-pickings Northwest, there are now only two hanging to note the seven times Vancouver won the division, victories that include the past five seasons. A third banner memorializes three Smythe Division titles (the forerunner to the Northwest).

Adding banners for titles in the reconstituted Pacific Division, the Canucks' new home, is going to be lot tougher.

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With almost 20 per cent of Vancouver's 2013-14 season done – the team has already played an NHL-leading 16 games – the Canucks are 2-2 against rivals in their new division, both losses coming at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.

The next four games in six days will be revealing – a major measuring stick for Vancouver as it takes to the road against Pacific rivals Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. Of those four, Phoenix, San Jose, Anaheim are as-yet undefeated at home.

David Booth, who has recovered from a groin injury after missing four games, practised with the team on Monday and believed he would be on the trip. Instead, the Canucks announced Monday afternoon that their $4.5-million winger was being sent to the minors in Utica, N.Y. for a "conditioning assignment."

The Canucks plane lifted off at 2 p.m. local time Monday, and while the team line is generally that they don't pay too much attention to what other teams are doing, the players were well aware of how well the teams they're about to face are faring in the standings.

"This road trip's going to be very difficult," defenceman Dan Hamhuis said. "The teams and their records at home are very impressive and are going to be real challenging."

Vancouver's recent run of dominance in the Northwest helped underpin two Presidents' Trophies and produced an in-division record of 77-28-9. It also guaranteed the team received at least the third seed in the Western Conference, assuring the first round of the playoffs opened at home.

In the past five years that Vancouver won the Northwest, the team continually had one of the best in-division records in the NHL: fourth in 2008-09, third in 2009-10, first in 2010-11, second in 2011-12, and sixth in 2013.

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The easy days are long gone. The Pacific Division is as difficult as the Northwest was lax.

In one example, Vancouver's 10-5-1 record for 21 points as of midday Monday puts it fourth in the Pacific, behind San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix – but would stand first in the Atlantic Division, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins.

The Canucks in October managed to produce their best long road trip in the franchise's four-decade-plus history, putting up a 5-1-1 record as they tramped through eastern North America. The team will have to put together a similar effort to make it through the gauntlet of the southwestern U.S.

"It says a lot of about the mental toughness of this team," Hamhuis said of the previous road trip.

The Western Conference is, as it has been, stacked with competition. "There's a lot of firepower and this road trip is going to be an example," Hamhuis added.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo said the team is coming together under head coach John Tortorella.

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"We're getting better," Luongo said. "You can see guys gaining confidence in the way we're playing the game."

With the Canucks' 4-0 win over the Maple Leafs last Saturday, they somewhat erased memories of a poor showing and a loss against the Red Wings three days earlier. The team is again attacking, which is what Tortorella preaches.

"We're trying," the coach said in brief remarks Monday, "to inflict and attack as best we can."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More


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