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If you had read the media cuttings throughout the NHL’s regular season in Vancouver, BC, you could have been forgiven for mistakenly believing that the Canadian press were slating the losing Stanley Cup finalist Canucks for struggling towards the bottom of the Northwest division in the league’s Western Conference. However, after defeating divisions whipping boys and fellow Canadian’s the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 at the Rogers Arena last night, head coach Alain Vigneault’s team will return to the NHL playoffs as the President’s Trophy winners and #1 seed in the Western Conference, hosting the #8 seed Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs with the ultimate aim of finally claiming a first Stanley Cup title. While it remains somewhat a generalisation to suggest that the road to the Stanley Cup finals in the Western Conference will go through British Columbia, the first matchup of each prospective playoff round will be held on home ice in Vancouver.
Claiming back to back Presidents Trophy’s is a rarity, the Dallas Stars were the last team to accomplish such a feat in the 1997-8 and 1998-9 season, but for the Canucks, the road to redemption starts in earnest now. Captain Henrik Sedin’s first goal in 22 games capped off a remarkable run of 9 wins in the last 10 games for the Canadian outfit, relegating long time conference leaders to #2 seed while the victory in New York for the Washington Capitals enabled Vancouver to take advantage of the Rangers slip up to stand alone on 111 points, 6 less than they managed in the 2011 NHL season. Widely decried as benefactors of an awful division, it can be no accident over an 82 game season to end up with a 51-22-9 record. More importantly, however, the Canucks have hit a run of clinical form when they need it the most, shoring up their occasionally leaky defense behind much maligned goaltender Roberto Luongo, correcting a criticism which had been levelled consistently at the team following their 2011 Stanley Cup implosion against the Boston Bruins.
Coach Vigneault, while acknowledging that the real work starts now, was pleasantly surprised by the added bonus the President’s Trophy brings. Per the Vancouver Sun; “Winning the Presidents’ Trophy means that we’ve had a good year,” Vigneault said. “This group has played some real solid hockey. We’ve been consistent and to win it again says a lot about the quality of the people we have playing the games night in and night out. Obviously I think everybody could tell by the way we came out in this game our guys really wanted to have a good game tonight and that’s what we did.” The President’s Trophy certainly isn’t the goal for any team at the start of the season; no young boy in America or Canada sets his sights on the crown growing up. A first Stanley Cup title still remains the ultimate goal for the proud Canadian franchise. Vigneault, however, must be relieved that securing the #1 spot in the league probably ensures his job for the 2012-13 campaign, regardless of Stanley Cup success or failure. For a team of the magnitude and talent of the Canucks, it’s an indictment on the pressure that a President’s Trophy is the yard stick by how their head coach is measured.
The seemingly perennial argument concerning whether Luongo or teammate and fellow goaltender Cory Schneider is in better position to lead the Canucks to that coveted first title was somewhat assuaged by yet another shutout form the mercurial talent from Montreal. Known to struggle when facing few shots, Luongo was solid for the entire night against Edmonton, earning him the normal affectionate chorus of ‘Louuuuuuuuuuuu’ from the Rogers Arena faithful. Luongo gave his defensemen a glowing seal of approval for their performance, something which bodes well for the upcoming playoff challenge. “The boys played the system to perfection tonight,” said Luongo, who stopped Ryan Jones on a breakaway late in the second period. “Barely any scoring chances. We had a ton of shots, great way to finish off the regular season. Now it’s time to move on to the most exciting time of year.” The shutout combined with Schneider’s first loss since March 19 against Calgary last time out, cements Luongo’s place in the side against Los Angeles, at least until the braying Vancouver crowd asks for a change, something which is wont on occasion.
For Sedin and his teammates, the hard work begins now. In the 25 year history of the President’s Trophy, only 7 went on to win the Cup and 3 more made the finals, including the Canucks in 2011. However, 5 more winners have been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs since 1986 when the trophy was first awarded. While the Canucks know their opponents, the schedule is set to be announced today at 1pm ET live on NHL network, with the first games expected to be played on Wednesday 11th or Thursday 12th April. The Canucks know that the Kings will provide a stern test over a 7 game stretch, with net minder Jonathan Quick leading the league with 10 shutouts over the entire season. The Canucks boast a 2-1-1 record against LA throughout the regular season, although the two sides have built up a ferocious rivalry in recent seasons. Canucks centre Samuel Pahlsson, who won a Stanley Cup title in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks, the Kings Division rival, believes the Kings to be a significant challenge. “They’ve played a good defensive game all year but they’ve struggled a bit offensively,” Pahlsson noted. “Will it be a low scoring series? That’s possible. We’ll see what happens. Whatever it takes as long as we get more goals than them.” Stalwart defenseman Kevin Bieska is not adverse to a bit of conflict on the ice. “They’ve been physical and chippy games and they are one of the teams we’ve had the most scrums with, I think, throughout the season. They’ve very, very deep up front, big and strong on the blueline and have probably one of the best goaltenders in the game.”
The one worry for Vancouver remains the health of star left wing and twin brother of captain Henrik, Daniel Sedin. After suffering a serious concussion following an untimely meeting between the Swede’s jaw and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman’s Duncan Keith’s elbow, Sedin has reportedly had no problem skating on his own. Coach Vigneault showed his hand somewhat by playing Andrew Ebbett on the top line with Henrik and Alex Burrows. If the Vancouver coach had serious doubts over Daniel’s return, surely Max Lapierre would have seen starting playing time in order to prepare for the playoffs next week? Daniel’s return would undoubtedly prove timely to bolster an attack which has somewhat struggled in recent weeks. Paring a solid defense with a healthy Sedin pair up top could catapult the Canucks past the Kings and on the road to a second consecutive Stanley Cup final. If they make it there, success must surely beckon, before their window for glory begins to close.