VANCOUVER - They are 19 games into their National Hockey League season, and anyone who can say with conviction how good the Vancouver Canucks are must be a visitor from the future.
Because they are 19 games in, after Tuesday night’s 4-2 home loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, and they have exactly one (1) regulation-time win against a team that made the playoffs last year.
They are 10-5-4 overall, but against 2011-12 playoff teams they are 2-3-3.
Their season is 40 per cent done, operating out of a weak division that produced just one playoff qualifier last season and might do so again, and they have only a handful of asterisks for season highlights:
* A 5-0 win at Anaheim in Game 4, against a Ducks team that, true, didn’t make the playoffs in 2011-12, but has come roaring out of the gate this year at 13-3-1.
* Two cliffhangers against the still-unbeaten (in regulation) Chicago Blackhawks, the first a tepid 2-1 shootout win at home, the second a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout loss on the road, and ...
* The singular aforementioned regulation win over a playoff team, last Friday’s razor-thin 1-0 verdict in Nashville against the always difficult Predators.
Tuesday, they ran into exactly the kind of game they’re going to see in the playoffs, and they spent much of the night trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out how to penetrate the barbed-wire fence Dave Tippett’s Coyotes set up around the meat of their defensive zone.
Clogged shooting lanes, disciplined five-man backchecking ... it wasn’t pretty out there, and the Canucks could not make it so.
So how good are they, really?
We’d probably have a little better idea if the latest rumoured realignment proposal -- from six divisions to four, roughly along time-zone lines -- that the league and players association are mulling over had been in effect in this lockout-shortened, one-off of a season.
At least then, the preponderance of Vancouver’s games would be within a seven-team division that included the three California teams, any one of which can be a stern test on a given night.
Instead, as has been noted since the division-heavy, 48-game schedule came out, the Canucks can fatten up on the halt and the lame, probably coast to the Northwest Division pennant and arrive, at the end of April, as a top-three playoff seed with no fuss and little muss ... but also with scant evidence to know whether they are in the same competitive mindset as some of the Pacific and Central teams they could face right off the hop.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, naturally, doesn’t think much of the theory. We’re still waiting for the one he likes that comes from a media person.
“Every game is tough in this league,” he said Tuesday. “If the other team gets good goaltending, they’re difficult to beat.
“Everybody was predicting Edmonton would be a playoff team, and someone -- it might even have been Sports Illustrated -- predicted they’d be one of the top three or four teams in the league. Minnesota last year was one of the best teams in the league the first half of the season. Colorado’s another good young team that comes hard every night. Calgary ... is in a transition period.
“So I think the notion that these games are easier is way overblown.
“I think it’s just too easy a conclusion to jump to. We have about the same record against Northwest Division as we do against all the other teams we play.”
Well, um ... not really. The Canucks have earned 13 of a possible 14 points against Northwest opposition. They are 6-0-1 within the division, 4-5-3 against everyone else.
The good news, if you’re looking for silver linings, is that they’re 5-2-2 on the road. So there’s that to be said for their mettle, Sunday’s 8-3 washout in Detroit notwithstanding.
Gillis doesn’t believe for a minute that the frequent ordinariness of the Canucks’ regular-season opposition skews the hockey team’s view of itself.
“When we look at a game, we look at our travel the week before, how many games we’ve played ... in Detroit, we’re playing our fifth game in eight nights, we’re leading 3-2 after the first period and then ... you saw what happened. Everyone recognizes that there were things happened in that second period that got that game going sideways for us.
“We have to look at a bigger picture. We knew that was going to be a real challenging game. We’d been on the road for a week. Played back-to-back games. If that game had been against a Northwest Division team, it would have been equally difficult, because of what had gone before.”
What had gone before Tuesday’s game was a tough road trip. So, a sluggish start, an early goal against, and a predictable result.
The rest of the argument you already know, starting with the obvious: you eat what’s put in front of you, as everyone’s mom used to say.
“You take your competition as you find them. That’s all you can do,” Gillis said. Whether it’s from Stanley Cup contenders every night or not (the correct answer is “not”), he rejects the idea that the Canucks might not be ready when the really stern opposition arrives.
Phoenix looked plenty stern.
“We went to the final two years ago,” Gillis said. “And when we got to the final, we had travelled something like 16,000 air miles, compared to (Boston’s) 4,500. And we did well, against good hockey teams, beating Chicago and Nashville and San Jose. So I think we were pretty well-prepared for what we faced.
“Last year ... you can say what you want. The result wasn’t there. But I don’t think that was a reflection of us not having a good read on our team, I think that was the opponent.”
He could be right. It has been known to happen.
Perhaps by the time realignment comes along, Edmonton’s wildly-talented kids will have finally found their game, and the Kings will be over their Cup hangover and the Sharks will live up to their talent and the Coyotes will still be in Phoenix, perpetually surprising, and the Ducks will still be rolling and the Flames ... well, maybe not the Flames ...
Maybe by then, the Pacific Division, or whatever it's called, will be better preparation for the crucible.
In the meantime, the Canucks don’t care so much about divisions, or realignment. They are too busy looking for that one demonstrably good team they can beat decisively.
It hasn’t happened yet.
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