Iain MacIntyre: Don't call it home ice advantage

 

 
 
 
 
Henrik Sedin (left) and Daniel Sedin during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena in Vancouver, April 14, 2015.
 
 

Henrik Sedin (left) and Daniel Sedin during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena in Vancouver, April 14, 2015.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

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VANCOUVER - It was hard for the Vancouver Canucks to make the Stanley Cup tournament, but it will be even harder Wednesday night when they play in a place where they’ve had little playoff success, against a confident team and in front of an intimidating crowd whose expectations can overwhelm.

We speak, of course, of Rogers Arena. With home rinks like this, who needs the road?

Despite being favoured before every playoff series since their first of two Presidents’ Trophies in 2011, the Canucks are 0-6 in Vancouver since Game 5 of the Cup final four years ago against the Boston Bruins.

The Canucks were excellent this season as underdogs, a role unfamiliar to them. Fuelled partly by the cynicism of critics who felt their roster had expired, the Canucks delivered their most inspiring season in years. They beat every team in the National Hockey League except the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars, and often conjured their best performances in the unlikeliest circumstances — like road wins on the same trip in February against the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins, when as many as eight Canucks were missing due to injury.

The Canucks seemed to elevate themselves for the biggest games against the best opponents.

Tell them they couldn’t win and they would.

But hand them a gimme, and they’d trip over the Arizona Coyotes or Buffalo Sabres.

“As a person, whatever you do, when people don’t expect you to do good, you want to show them that they’re wrong,” Canucks winger Daniel Sedin explained Tuesday. “No one expected us to make the playoffs. We weren’t supposed to have bounce-back seasons (individually). But we all showed we can still play.”

They demonstrated this so emphatically, alas, the Canucks not only made the playoffs one year after the John Tortorella disaster, they earned home-ice advantage to start the Stanley Cup tournament against a Calgary Flames’ team that was even more surprising than Vancouver.

Now suddenly, the Canucks aren’t underdogs. They’re the home team, the favoured team, even if a lot of people have picked the plucky Flames to win a long series.

Vancouver is the team with more pressure on it tonight in Game 1. So it may as well be the 2013 first round against the San Jose Sharks (a 3-1 loss at home in Game 1) or the 2012 opening series against the Los Angeles Kings (a 4-2 loss).

Only in Vancouver could a lot of the fans who were dismissive last fall of the Canucks’ chances of making the playoffs now expect an extended playoff run.

“Oh, yeah,” captain Henrik Sedin agreed, smiling. “I love it. It’s the best.

“I laugh at it, too. There wasn’t a lot of people who put us in the playoffs when the season started and now, like you said, there’s a lot of talk about getting on a big run.”

He added that the Flames might be the only team in the Western Conference playoffs against whom the Canucks would be favoured.

No one is going to say they’d rather have a tougher opponent, but it would have been easier on the Canucks to start on the road. Go get a split away from home when there’s more pressure on the other team, then return to Vancouver with momentum and even more confidence.

But the Canucks just played too well this season as underdogs to do that.

“I could lie to you but, honestly, I just don’t care who picked us to make the playoffs, who didn’t,” veteran defenceman Kevin Bieksa said, as only he would. “Last year we were upset with ourselves (to miss the playoffs). You feel like you let the fans down, the fans that supported you, not making the playoffs. But this year, we wanted to get back to the playoffs for ourselves.

“I think it’s a challenge, no matter what. I don’t think just because we’re playing on home ice, we’re the favourites to win the game. And if we are, so be it.”

Upon prodding, first-year Canucks coach Willie Desjardins conceded: “I think the easiest game to steal in a series is the first game — and that’s being on the road. Everybody’s new and you don’t know exactly what the other team’s going to do, so I think that’s an easier game to steal than other games. Saying that, I like home-ice advantage.”

Relative to the rest of the NHL, the Canucks were stronger on the road this season (24-14-3) than at home (24-15-2). Max Lapierre scored their last winning goal in the playoffs at Rogers Arena. It was only 46 months ago.

The Canucks have been outscored 20-8 at home since then, although two of their six straight playoff losses were in overtime.

“If you asked the new guys, they wouldn’t even know that,” veteran winger Alex Burrows said. “So it’s not going to affect them. And people like me and Kevin and the twins, we don’t read too much into that. We know we have to do better.”

Burrows is one of nine Canucks remaining from the 2011 team. All of them will tell you how different this season felt to previous ones, how incorporating eight new players and competing as underdogs instead of favoured frontrunners rejuvenated and excited everyone.

They thrived on that sense of achievement beyond expectations. Now they have to find a way to sustain it, even with expectations heightened by their own success.

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Henrik Sedin (left) and Daniel Sedin during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena in Vancouver, April 14, 2015.
 

Henrik Sedin (left) and Daniel Sedin during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena in Vancouver, April 14, 2015.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

 
Henrik Sedin (left) and Daniel Sedin during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena in Vancouver, April 14, 2015.
Head coach Willie Desjardins gives instructions during Vancouver Canucks practice at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena at UBC on April 14, 2015.
Bo Horvat loses his balance during Vancouver Canucks practice at  Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena at UBC on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
Henrik Sedin (L) and Kevin Bieksa collide during Vancouver Canucks practice at  Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Arena on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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