A Presidents' Trophy three-peat was out of the question early for the Vancouver Canucks, who at their best would have been in tough to match the record-setting pace set by the Chicago Blackhawks.
And the Canucks were far from their best in this abbreviated season, falling short of the high standards set while topping the regular-season standings in each of the past two seasons as they dealt with long-term injuries to key players like center Ryan Kesler.
Vancouver overcame a pair of prolonged absences for the oft-injured Kesler and fellow top-six forward David Booth, hanging on at times, thriving at others, until finally clinching a playoff spot with a 2-1 shootout win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. With a six-point cushion on the Minnesota Wild, a fifth-straight Northwest Division title soon should follow.
Here are five reasons the Canucks are headed back to the postseason:
1. Schneider's first season as a No.1 -- Cory Schneider didn't even make it through his first game as the new No. 1, pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots in 22 minutes of a lopsided season-opening loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
That was followed by two months of inconsistency -- short stretches of brilliance mixed with mediocrity that left Schneider saying he was "sick and tired of being an average goaltender," and not the goalie he knew he could be. He finally found the form in mid-March and hasn't looked back, going 10-3-1 with a .936 save percentage and four shutouts through an impressive 33-save win against Detroit on Saturday.
While there certainly were nights where Schneider would be the first to say that he benefitted from a stingy defense, a lot more ended like Saturday, with coach Alain Vigneault calling him the best player on the ice.
2. Garrison not all about goals -- Most of the focus after Jason Garrison signed a six-year, $27.6 million contract to play in his hometown was on the career-best 16 goals and 33 points he totaled with the Florida Panthers last season.
The Canucks insisted at the time Garrison also was a strong presence in the defensive end, and he has proven them right with a plus-17 rating that tops their blueliners and is second on the team. More importantly, after an early adjustment to a new system Garrison has become Vancouver's best left-shot option on the right side, something they desperately needed with only two right-shot defenders on the roster, but struggled to find early.
With the steady, calming -- and often underappreciated -- influence of Dan Hamhuis on his left, Garrison has become a big part of Vancouver's top defense pairing. As for the scoring, his seven goals and 14 points translate to 13 goals and 25 points in an 82-game season, numbers that are more impressive given he's been used rarely on the top power-play unit.
3. Versatility -- With Kesler out and veteran Manny Malhotra shut down after just nine games over fears his vision impairment was putting him at risk, the Canucks played most of the season with just two established NHL centers -- and one was fourth-liner Maxim Lapierre.
In addition to different roles, the Canucks adapted to a different style of play amid the injuries and roster deficiencies, throwing out the offensive artistry and puck possession of the past two seasons and trying to win lower-scoring, tighter-checking games. It wasn't always pretty -- and Vancouver fans let them know it -- but it worked until reinforcements arrived, with Kesler coming back soon after Roy was acquired.
4. Luongo dealing with his demotion -- The humility and class Roberto Luongo demonstrated all season defused a potentially devastating distraction after the Canucks failed to make a trade most expected before the season.
Luongo did more than that, however, turning his intensive work with old goalie coach Francois Allaire during the lockout into a strong start that had him near the top of the NHL in save percentage through the first month of the season. While his numbers dropped following lopsided losses to Detroit, Luongo's early play made it easier to give Schneider eight days in mid-March to fine tune his technique with goaltending coach Roland Melanson, which helped trigger his late-season run.
And without Luongo's nine wins in 18 games, it's hard to imagine the Canucks in the top half of the Western Conference along with three other teams -- Chicago, Anaheim and the Los Angeles Kings -- that relied on two goalies.
5. Depth -- Without Kesler, opponents have been able to focus more of their defensive efforts on shutting down the top-line duo of Daniel and Henrik Sedin. With the power play sputtering most of the season, there has been a higher demand for secondary scoring.
It hasn't come steadily enough from any one source, but sporadic bursts throughout the lineup have helped.
Zack Kassian started things with five goals in his first seven games. Defenseman Kevin Bieksa went on a run of five goals in the next nine games, and usual third-liners Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins have combined for 29 goals.
It's not nearly enough to keep the Canucks top-five in scoring for a third straight season, but it put them middle of the pack, and most importantly back in the playoffs.
Author: Kevin Woodley | NHL.com Correspondent
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