Iain MacIntyre: Canucks remove doubt with playoff clout

 

They’re back!: Benning’s work to add depth, chemistry and free-agent sniper Vrbata helped point tight team in better direction

 
 
 
 
“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.
 
 

“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.

Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS

VANCOUVER - We always believed Jim Benning when he said the Vancouver Canucks could be a playoff team this season. But we were skeptical, until now, about the addendum to the general manager’s claim: that once in the National Hockey League playoffs, the Canucks might actually win.

Six nights from the start of the Stanley Cup tournament, we can’t find a daunting potential opponent for the Canucks in the Western Conference. All are good. None are invincible.

The Canucks are 2-1 this season against the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-0 against the St. Louis Blues. They’re 2-1-2 against the Anaheim Ducks, 2-2 against the Calgary Flames. Their only wins against the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild were the most recent games against them. The Canucks’ only loss to the Winnipeg Jets was last week.

The team the Canucks — and a lot of others — feared most, the Los Angeles Kings, are unlikely to make the playoffs after losing this week on consecutive nights in Vancouver and Edmonton.

Can the Canucks actually advance in the playoffs after finishing 25th in the NHL last season? Why not?

“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.

“If playoffs have showed you anything, it’s about being on at the right time.”

The Canucks made it back to the Stanley Cup tournament Tuesday night — “on the couch,” winger Radim Vrbata said — as players watched the Kings start their backup goalie and lose 4-2 to the Oilers.

Vancouver is back in the playoffs because Daniel and Henrik Sedin were so far from finished at age 34 they had the most complete seasons of their career, and Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows and Alex Edler were reborn with the coaching change to Willie Desjardins from John Tortorella.

The Canucks are in the playoffs because Benning made the team deeper, re-oxygenated the dressing room by dumping unhappy Ryan Kesler and turned over enough of the roster to make things feel fresh, and won the free-agent sweepstakes by signing Vrbata to a two-year, $10-million deal.

The Canucks are in because Eddie Lack mowed down teams after coming out of the bullpen for injured starting goalie Ryan Miller, and because that improved depth and a fourth line (since elevated) built around 19-year-old rookie Bo Horvat kept energy levels high.

It wasn’t one thing that restored the Canucks anymore than it was one game. There was, however, a five-game road trip back in February that made this team.

“That was for sure the defining moment in our season,” Benning said. “We headed out on that road trip out east with three defencemen down, and then Alex Burrows and Ryan Miller got hurt on that trip. And we were also missing (centres) Brad Richardson and Nick Bonino. But we survived that road trip and it gave us the chance down the stretch to make the playoffs.”

The Canucks not only survived while missing eight injured players, they won on the road against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders and Boston Bruins. And even with a loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the end of the trip that was as stunning as Vancouver’s short-staffed victories against some powerful Eastern Conference teams, that wintry week demonstrated mental toughness, resilience and resourcefulness we weren’t sure the Canucks possessed.

“How many times throughout this year, (have) people thought we were going to collapse and start losing games?” captain Henrik Sedin asked. “And we stuck with it.

“I know a lot of people thought last year was a sign that we weren’t good enough. I saw it as an off-year.”

Sedin said there is a grittier feel, a greater sense of satisfaction, with this Canuck team than the one that cruised to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies a few years ago without ever worrying about missing the playoffs or having to grind out vital wins under pressure late in the season.

With two games remaining, including tonight’s against the Arizona Coyotes, the Canucks’ 97 points are miles below the franchise-record 117 set in 2011.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, the Canucks were already 14 points ahead of last season and only 10 behind the conference-leading Ducks.

“We have a group of players that really care for each other,” Benning said. “They deserve all of the credit. All of them have worked hard this year to get this opportunity and I’m glad they have the chance to play in the playoffs. When you have a group of guys who play this hard together, you don’t know where you could end up. That’s why I’m excited for this group.”

“I think we surprised some people maybe early in the season with the start we had,” Vrbata said. “Here we are now.”

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.
 

“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.

Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS

 
“This is the first part, and it’s always been the biggest step,” Canuck winger Jannik Hansen said Wednesday of qualifying for the playoffs. “You have to get in. Once you get in, it’s anybody’s chance. Goalies steal games, guys get on a tear, anything can happen. But you need to get in. That’s the taxing part of it. You throw away a few games here or there and you’re out of it.
Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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