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Ryan Miller makes a pad save against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 26. Miller has led an unlikely 9-3-3 run for the Vancouver Canucks.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When the hockey season started, there were two divergent views on the Vancouver Canucks: Outsiders widely predicted the team would again finish near the bottom of the league; the team believed it was good enough to be in the playoff hunt.

The Canucks have so far proven outsiders wrong, largely because of a 9-3-3 run since the Christmas break that has been powered primarily by great goaltending, led by veteran Ryan Miller. The team has ceded the fewest goals in the league since the break.

Playing in the Western Conference helps. Vancouver's successful run includes four wins against the worst teams in the league, Colorado and Arizona. And the Western Conference playoff bar is unusually low for the second consecutive season.

Vancouver's playoffs prospects, however, may be illusory. They have a tougher schedule than the other teams vying for the West's two wild-card slots and will spend a good part of the next month on the road, where they are especially weak. The continued performance of Miller, who turns 37 this summer as he becomes a free agent, will be essential to a potential playoff push.

Coach Willie Desjardins is frank about the playoff picture. In his third year as coach, he had been seen by many as an inch away from being fired earlier this season, when Vancouver was struggling. After Christmas, he said he asked his players for an extra effort. They delivered. On Tuesday, he said he asked them for more.

"We know other teams are going to be better," said Desjardins, as the team readied to play the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night. "If we stay the same, it won't be good enough."

Last season, the Minnesota Wild made the playoffs in the West in eighth place, with only 87 points. The West's playoff bar had previously never been lower than 91 points since the 2004-05 lockout.

This season there are six teams (Los Angeles, St. Louis, Calgary, Vancouver, Dallas, and Winnipeg) in contention for the wild-card spots, and the projected playoff bar is again at 87 points.

In Vancouver, Miller is on top of his game. His save percentage is 0.920. If he sustains it, it would be only the third time in his long career that he has cracked the 0.920 mark, and he would become only the sixth goaltender 36 or older in the past three decades to reach that mark.

At the trade deadline, Miller could bring an interesting return – as rivals such as Dallas and L.A. need goaltending. But the Canucks haven't suggested they're looking to sell. The last time Miller was about to become a free agent, in 2013-14, he was playing well in Buffalo and was traded to St. Louis at the deadline, where his play became uneven.

For him, this potential run in Vancouver comes after two up-and-down winters. In the first season of his three-year deal paying $6-million (U.S.) a year, he suffered a knee injury in February, 2015, and missed six important weeks. Last season, the Canucks weren't good. It has been, said Miller, "a lot of frustration."

Now he is primed. He savours the present – and doesn't over-analyze his current performance. He knows he had a losing skid of seven consecutive games in the fall.

"Hockey gives and takes," he said.

In the recent winning streak, he booked his 350th career victory, putting him at No. 20 on the all-time list among goalies.

His aim is to keep playing – but where is the question. His wife, Noureen DeWulf, is a busy actress in L.A., and their first son turns two years old in March.

"I do want to get as much out of hockey as I can," he said. "There are things we'll have to weigh, but family always comes first – for me."

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