League-leading Canucks have fans thinking Cup

Feb 20 2011 - 9:29pm

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Not even the anniversary of last year's successful Winter Olympics has diverted Vancouver's attention from a matter of national importance -- the Canucks and their chances of ending Canada's Stanley Cup drought.

Though Olympic memories abound following recent celebrations to mark the opening of the 2010 Games, Vancouver is once again all about its NHL team.

"It keeps the pressure up. It means that sometimes you're not as happy as some people think you should be or might be," Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis said. "But that's the nature of the beast. This team hasn't won in 40 years and we think we have a unique opportunity in front of us to capitalize on if everything goes well and we get some luck."

Nearly two decades have passed since a Canadian team won a Stanley Cup, but the Canucks are doing their best to give hope that maybe it's time to break the drought.

They led the league in points entering Thursday's games, the latest into a season Vancouver has ever found itself in line to win the President's Trophy. A team that's topped 100 points in the regular season only five times in franchise history cracked the 80-point mark with 25 games remaining.

During the 18 years since the Montreal Canadians won the Cup in 1993, the warm-weather expansion teams of Carolina, Anaheim, Dallas and Tampa Bay have all won titles, while Canadian clubs are 0-4 in the finals during that span.

It's a failure Canadians take personally. And while two Olympic golds during that time, including Sidney Crosby's legendary overtime winner in this town a year ago, have eased some of the pain, winning a Cup remains a priority.

"It's beginning to be a complex here for Canadians," joked Blake Price, who hosts the Canucks pre- and postgame radio shows. "Why can't a Canadian team; most of them spend to the cap, most of them spend the most money they possibly can, they pick and choose their management guys really carefully, why the heck can't a Canadian team pull it off?"

So excuse the optimistic blue-and-white clad Canucks fans who are more than a little hyped that their team is the class of the league with two-thirds of the season gone.

After all, this is a starving fan base, known for planning parade routes at the first hint of playoff promise, and then rolling up the roads after the first loss. Vancouver has gone 40 seasons with just two Stanley Cup finals appearances, the last coming in 1994 when Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden took the Canucks within one victory of upsetting the New York Rangers.

Now comes 2011.

From the hardcore sports bars to the swanky techno-thumping neon clubs of Georgia, Robson or Granville streets, Vancouver's tag line of "We are all Canucks" transforms into reality around 6 p.m. on game nights. Business suits become undershirts for jerseys with the names Kesler, Burrows, Luongo and of course, either of the Sedins printed on the back.

With the string of consecutive sellouts nearing 350, the few available single-game tickets go for a premium either on the web or through brokers. While the regular-season crowd is a little corporate and quiet, the Canucks' home arena is known as one of the rowdiest during the playoffs.

"That's the way you want it. You want your fans taking an interest in the team," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "But you have to be able to tune that out and focus on what is going on in here."

Bure, once known as the Russian Rocket, has been replaced in Vancouver lore by Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Ryan Kesler, the Canucks' leading goal scorer, is an American hothead who's tempered his penchant for fighting to set a new career high in goals, deciding to punish his opponent by scoring instead of letting his emotions boil to the point of distraction.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo gave up his captaincy before the season and is on pace for the finest regular season in his career, recently going 21 consecutive starts without a regulation defeat.

Maybe Canadians longing to return the Stanley Cup north should be optimistic about these Canucks.

"You need to improve. Some teams fade away and some other teams keep getting better," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "And we want our group to be one of those teams that keep getting better."

This Canucks' renaissance is due largely to Gillis and Vigneault, and their ability to keep a core of stars -- the Sedins, Luongo, Kesler, Alex Burrows -- happy and content.

Gillis brought a new approach when he took over the Canucks before the start of the 2009-10 season. The former agent restructured the operations department when he arrived, bringing in more than 60 years of playing experience to the front office.

Gillis also redid the Canucks' locker room and invested in a reported "mind room" to help his players achieve the right mental state. He says those changes are a sign from ownership that the Canucks will do everything possible -- no matter how unorthodox -- to bring the city a title.

"At the end of the day if you have to take less money because the resources are being used in different ways, it seems like our guys have bought into it and if you don't buy into it you're not going to be here," Gillis said. "You're either in, you're fully in, or your not. I think that's been an incredibly positive from a team perspective, managing a team, having players willing to do that and I think that leads to success."

While the Canucks continue to win at a franchise-record pace, there are concerns.

Foremost is the stream of injuries that began last summer when defenseman Sami Salo ruptured his Achilles' tendon playing floor hockey, only returning to the team last week. The big loss came last month when Alexander Edler, the Canucks' best offensive blue-liner, was sidelined by back surgery. He hopes to return just before the playoffs.

The defense has been especially hard hit with Dan Hamhuis (concussion), Keith Ballard (knee), Lee Sweatt (foot) all missing time. The latest blows came when Andrew Alberts broke his wrist against St. Louis on Monday and Bieksa broke his left foot blocking a shot Tuesday in Minnesota. There is no timeline on their return.

There's also the question of whether a finesse team can succeed against physical teams in the playoffs.

The Canucks aren't physically imposing and lack an enforcer. They try to hurt opponents on the power play, where Vancouver is the best in the NHL this season.

But can that translate in the postseason? The last two years, an easily distracted Canucks team got bullied out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals by Chicago.

The Canucks say they learned from the mistakes they made in last year's loss to the Blackhawks and carried them over into this season, part of the reason they've led the Northwest Division almost from Day 1.

Of course, the only opportunity to prove that will come when the postseason begins in April.

"A lot of guys have been here a long time and realize we haven't done anything until we've won the Stanley Cup," Daniel Sedin said. "That's what it's going to come down to."

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