Outrunning the Avalanche
Virtually no one would have guessed that this would instead be a time when the Canucks sit on the verge of clinching the ultra-competitive Northwest Division, having secured a playoff spot over a week earlier.
For much of the first half of the season, it was easy to see where those purveyors of doom and gloom were coming from: the Canucks started the year going 2-8-1 against the Northwest.
However, the team has turned things around in a big way, earning points in all-but-three of their last 17 games against the Northwest. They now sit at 16-12-3 against their own Division, and a win against the Avalanche Thursday will assure them top spot.
Like any good coach, Alain Vigneault never lost faith in his team's abilities. But even he says he is a little surprised at where his team sits with three games to go.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't assume we'd have it [a playoff spot] clinched this early," Vigneault said following practice Wednesday morning. "I would've really thought we'd be like the east, fighting all the way down, right to the last ten days to get into the playoffs."
While the first half of the year was marred with confusion about just when things would start to click, with their spectacular play since Christmas, it is no longer strange to hear the team speak of some fairly lofty goals. Heading into Thursday's game, the Canucks are not merely seeking the one win needed to grab the Division title, but three.
"We want to go into the playoffs hot," said defenseman Kevin Bieksa. "We're going to keep going, and keep going hard. We want three wins here."
However, as well as they've played of late, earning that Division title and notching two more wins before the season is out will be no small task. The Canucks first order of business is to do what few have been able to recently: stop the Avalanche.
Much like their namesake, the Avs have been crushing opponents of late. The Avs have won three straight and are 13-1-2 since Feb. 27.
"They're going to be going on full cylinders," said Trevor Linden. "We know that they're a good offensive team and that's something we're going to have to be concerned about."
Adding to that concern is the fact the Avs are not only hot, they're desperate. In order to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Avs will have to win the rest of the way.
Joe Sakic's leadership has been integral to Colorado's late season push. The NHL's First Star this week, Burnaby Joe has 18 points in his last ten, including seven goals. At age 37, he currently sits 7th in the league in points and is as much an offensive threat now as ever.
"He's really unbelievable, the way he's played for so many years," said defenseman Mattias Ohlund. "Like any good player, you give him odd-man rushes, two-on-ones, three-on-twos, eventually he'll end up scoring. But I think if we have a couple forwards coming back and helping we'll be fine."
NUMBER 2 BACK FOR THE LAST THREE
Ohlund will no doubt be counted on to keep Sakic at bay as the veteran blueliner makes his return to the Canucks line-up Thursday.
He's had to sit out the last five games with an elbow laceration. Ohlund says his return couldn't come at a better time.
"Obviously you don't want to take ten days off at any point during the season," said Ohlund. "It will be nice to get a few games in here and next week start focusing on the playoffs."
Ohlund is one of a few hits the Canucks blue-line has taken over the past month. Both Sami Salo and Willie Mitchell have been in and out of the line-up, both with groin injuries.
Ohlund has 30 points (10-20-30) in 74 games this season. The Canucks posted a 3-1-1 record without Ohlund in the past five games.
With Ohlund back, it's expected Rory Fitzpatrick will sit out Thursday's game.
THANK YOU FANS
It's become a Canucks tradition, and the team will once again hold their "Fan Appreciation Night" during their last regular season home game Thursday.
As part of the evening's festivities, the Canucks will present their game worn sweaters to 24 lucky fans as part of their annual "Jerseys Off Our Backs" celebration. Several Canucks players will also be honoured as the annual player awards and Molson Cup are handed out.
A few fans will also be recognized, as the winners from round one of the Ultimate Canucks search fan generated content challenge will have their work show on the big screen.
As well fans have the chance to win plenty of prizes, including a 26" Sony flat screen TV and a pair of tickets to Game 1 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.