Ryan Suter #20 of the Minnesota Wild and Alex Burrows #14 of the Vancouver Canucks jockey for position in front of the net guarded by Josh Harding #37 of the Minnesota Wild during the third period of the game on February 7, 2013 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. The Canucks defeated the Wild 4-1.
Photograph by: Hannah Foslien, Getty Images
VANCOUVER - In the Northwest Division, the Vancouver Canucks are giants among Lilliputians, Paul McCartney among the Wings, the German economy among the European Union.
It isn't a fair fight in this National Hockey League outpost and hasn't been in years.
The Minnesota Wild came to town Tuesday night trying to win 1-0 behind a minor-league goalie making his first NHL start. The Canucks won 2-1. As part of its pre-game preparation, the Wild may have sacrificed a chicken and made a voodoo doll of Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo because – after four years and 10 games without a win in Vancouver – it couldn't hurt.
Since last missing the playoffs in 2008, the Canucks' record against their four divisional “rivals” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is 72-22-9.
The last two years, Vancouver was the only Northwest team to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.
In the four years and counting the Canucks have won the Northwest, the division has contributed only six of 32 playoff teams in the conference. The Central Division has sent 14 teams to the playoffs, and the Pacific Division 12.
The Wild, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers.
“I like to think we have had a big hand in that,” Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa said of the futility among rivals. “We take pride in winning these divisional matchups. We approach them like big games and I'm proud we've had the seasons we've had, where we've been able to win most of our divisional games. And that hurts the playoffs chances of those teams. We had a big hand in eliminating those teams.”
So have, in no particular order, Chuck Fletcher, Jay Feaster, Pierre Lacroix and Kevin Lowe – the managerial kingpins of the other teams.
The Avalanche, which oscillates annually between dreadful and not-quite-good-enough, have made the playoffs once since 2008, the last year the Flames made it under previous management. The Wild, the last division champion before the Canucks, has missed the playoffs four straight years, eclipsed in the Northwest only by the Oilers' six-year playoff drought.
It's difficult to fathom that the NHL's most remote cluster of teams was considered, prior to the lockout in 2004, arguably the league's toughest division.
The Avalanche won its last Stanley Cup in 2001 and the Flames should have won another in 2004. The Wild made the conference final in 2003, when every Northwest team but Calgary made the playoffs.
The division's down-cycle was supposed to be reversing this season.
Fletcher, the Wild's general manager, spent nearly $200 million on two players, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and Minnesota was expected finally to score enough to frighten opponents. And the Oilers, managed by Steve Tambellini and overseen by Lowe, were supposed to begin reaping the benefit of years of ineptitude as a frat house of sublimely talented draft picks matured and started finding their way in the NHL.
But the Wild has scored seven times in six games and its offence is ranked 29th. And the Oilers, still groping for structure and a defensive backbone, remain just a promising theory. They lost to the Dallas Stars 4-1 at home Tuesday night.
Even before losing vital forward Gabriel Landeskog to a concussion, the Avalanche decided to play this season without their best player from last season, Ryan O'Reilly. Guess how that's working out?
And Flames' GM Jay Feaster, whom we thought was being wry two years ago when he suggested Darryl Sutter had left him a “foundation,” apparently believes Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla will have more trade value in fossil form.
It appears the Canucks may win another division title by default and stroll into the playoffs again.
“With the salary cap, maybe it should be more even and more tight,” Canuck Daniel Sedin said of the division. “But this is the way it has been for a few years now. I think our division is getting better. Minnesota’s lineup tonight is a lot different than it has been the last few years. Edmonton is going to keep getting better and better. They're only a few points behind and if they win a few games they're right back in it. It is a better division than it was.”
The 8-2-2 Canucks lead the Wild and Oilers by five points and have a game in-hand on each.
Sedin acknowledged it has been a while since the Canucks had to “fight” to get into the playoffs, and many players admitted after their first-round exit last April that they were mentally unprepared for the Stanley Cup tournament.
And that is the problem with winning your division by 21 points.
The Canucks' stature is not diminished by their weak division because there are still (in a normal season) 58 games outside the division. By many other statistical measures, including their conference-best record against the seven teams from the Central and Pacific Divisions that made the playoffs last season, the Canucks were an elite team.
But conditions change in the playoffs and the lack of desperate, must-win games in the final month of the regular season seems like poor playoff preparation, even if the Canucks nearly won the Stanley Cup in 2011 after taking the Northwest by 23 points.
“I know what you're talking about,” Bieksa said. “But for this team, we're always looking up (at who's ahead in the conference), not looking down to see what's happening in the playoff race or in our division.”
Captain Henrik Sedin said: “I've heard a lot of things – that it can hurt us in the playoffs because we're not playing those tough games within our division. But this is such a tough league; no games are easy. I'd rather take winning the division easily than having to fight just to make the playoffs. It's not as easy as people think it is.”
Perhaps not, but it will get harder. NHL re-alignment will create a battle for the Canucks that the Wild, Oilers, Flames and Avalanche have been unable to muster.
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