While the highly competitive Pacific Division remains a logjam with four teams within two points of each other, look who quietly slipped past this elite group: the upstart Vancouver Canucks!
Once the longest shot to capture the Stanley Cup among Western Conference clubs (not counting the expansion teams), the Canucks are beginning to resemble the side that Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden moved to within a game of the Stanley Cup title in 1994.
After opening at 75-1, rising Vancouver trails only Colorado, St. Louis and Detroit for leadership of the entire Western Conference, just four points back at 25-1 in most Las Vegas future books.
Head coach Marc Crawfords edition of the Canucks may have more depth and grit than previous clubs in British Columbia, already owning revenge victories over both the 9-2 Avalanche -- Crawfords old team and the 4-1 Blues. A revenge game with 5-1 Detroit is slated for "the garage" (GM Place) on Jan. 16.
"After our performance last game, I think the guys were really geared to come back and play a really strong game here," Crawford said. "And having Mattias (Ohlund) back in the lineup was a boost for us. I think he'll be a huge addition to the fortunes of this club."
Missing 17 games after surgery to relieve building pressure in his right eye, Ohlund returned and scored in his first outing, as Vancouver has won in seven of its last 10 outings. The return of one of the teams top defensemen will solidify the Canucks on both ends of the ice.
Meanwhile, Seattle businessman John McCaw, who bought out outstanding shares of the franchise to take it private and save money, used part of his savings to pay an undisclosed sum to the Slovak hockey club Bratislava to obtain the release of high draft pick Rene Vydareny. Another offensive defensemen, Yydareny was taken 69th overall in the 200 amateur draft.
The turning of the team can be found in three areas: consistent goaltending, scoring from two lines thanks to the addition of the Sedin twins, and improved play on special teams.
Felix Potvin seems to be returning to the form that made him an All-Star in Toronto, while Bob Essensa owns one of the NHLs top winning percentages as the clubs No. 2 netminder.
On offense, Vancouver is among the leading teams in goals scored. Left wing Markus Naslund is the leading goal-scorer in the NHL, while, the 20-year-old Sedin twins -- center Henrik and LW Daniel -- paced the team in plus/minus ratings, and rank among the rookie scoring leaders. The pair should become finalists for the Calder Trophy.
Left wing Todd Bertuzzi continues to play well, especially since a potential trade for Anson Carter went by the boards when the holdout winger was finally traded from Boston to Edmonton. Bertuzzi plays on the Andrew Cassels line, which is among the leagues highest scoring, including Bertuzzis first career four-point night recently against St. Louis.
And defensemen Ed Jovanoski is having his best season since 1996, when his Florida Panthers club fell to Crawfords Avs in the Cup final.
In addition, the Canucks, who rank near the top in short-handed goals due to their team speed, are quietly moved into the NHL's top 10 at 18.8 percent on the power play. Penalty killing is also on the rise after stopping all but one of 28 chances during a recent stretch.
|Tue||Col @ NJ||Avs|
|Tue||Buff @ Mtl||Sabres|
|Wed||Tor @ Det||Leafs|
|Wed||Dal @ SJ||Stars|
|Thu||Nash @ Cgy||Under|
|Thu||Minn @ Chi||Under|
|Sat||Ott @ Mtl||Sens*|
|Sat||NYR @ Bst||Over|
|Sat||LA @ Edm||Kings|
|Sun||Nash @ Minn||Under|
|Sun||NYI @ Phil||Under|
|Sun||Dal @ Ana||Stars|