Back Up the Mountain

With puck drop on the 2011/12 NHL season twenty four hours away, the excitement is reaching a fever pitch. Prognosticators are prognosticating, season preview shows are in full swing, and fans are chomping at the bit to get things going. For the Vancouver Canucks, the start of the season offers the chance to put the sting of June 15th behind them and focus on the task at hand, which is climbing back atop the NHL standings and preparing for the long grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Unlike last year, this season begins with a heavy cloud over the team after losing not just the Stanley Cup, but two former teammates in Rick Rypien and Pavol Demitra. Despite all they have lost, one thing the Canucks have held onto is their desire to win. In fact, that desire will only have intensified having come one win shy of glory. Just ask Ryan Kesler, whose passionate performance in the playoffs earned him Conn Smythe consideration. Once he returns from injury, look for him to be the fire that fuels Vancouver’s engine, as nothing short of the Cup will be good enough for Kesler. The Sedin twins will have something to prove this year, having been questioned on their will to win once again after a lackluster final series. Not to discount their whole playoff performance, but they themselves have said that they weren’t good enough in the Finals and neither will get any real respect until they lift the Cup over their identical heads.

Then there’s Roberto Luongo. Some have speculated that this year may be his last to prove himself in Vancouver. While that may not be true with Mike Gillis and his head office, it’s certainly true with the fans, whose love/hate relationship with the all-star goaltender has taken on a soap opera-like tone. With Corey Schneider’s contract up for renewal this summer, the pressure will be on Gillis to make a tough choice should Luongo falter in the spring, one that could have seismic repercussions.

Though it’s hard not to think back to what could have been, there is a lot to look forward to. Cody Hodgson has finally secured a place with the big club and will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs and can compete with the elite. The same can be said of Chris Tanev who, unlike Hodgson, came out of nowhere last year to earn a spot on the blueline. There will be a hotter spotlight on the youngster this season, no doubt, but he’s shown a talent for keeping things cool and simple.

In terms of competition, the Canucks should benefit from a weak Northwest Division again this year. Colorado is in rebuilding mode, and Calgary really should be. That’s not to say that the Flames won’t compete for a playoff spot, but let’s face it, these aren’t the New Jersey Devils. There’s no Zach Parise to come to Calgary’s rescue, and losing Robyn Regehr won’t help their chances of competing against Vancouver. Edmonton should have a more mature, potent offense this season, but still haven’t addressed their deficiencies on the backend, which could cripple any playoff hopes the Oilers might have. Minnesota made a splash by bringing Dany Heatley over from San Jose, and many expect the two-time 50 goal scorer to return to form. However, they gave up Brent Burns to get him and, like Edmonton, lack of depth on defense could be their achilles’ heel. Suffice it to say, until a clear cut contender steps up, the Canucks will remain the undisputed Northwest champs.

The same cannot be said for the Western Conference. San Jose may have lost some offensive punch in Heatley, but a lack of offense wasn’t the reason they lost to the Canucks in the Western Final. Adding Burns only makes a great team greater, so watch for the Sharks to put up a serious fight for first. The Blackhawks, after gutting the team post-championship a year ago, should prove last year a fluke and be a force to recon with once again this season. Los Angeles made a splash grabbing Mike Richards from Philadelphia in the summer, and with the team’s young core of talent reaching their prime, don’t discount the Kings in the fight for the crown either. Detroit’s a perennial threat and Anaheim’s gritty offense should keep the Ducks afloat, meaning that the West will once again be wild. Vancouver will have to be ready for a dogfight if they want a return trip to the big dance.

If the Boston Bruins proved anything to the Canucks in the Finals, it’s that you never take your opponent for granted. The Stanley Cup champs will be tough to knock off the throne, but there’s no shortage of teams happy to take up the challenge. Washington won’t want to become the Sharks of the East with another early playoff ousting, but they’ll have to go through the Pittsburgh Penguins to avoid it. Should Crosby and his Pens stay healthy, they should be considered favorites in the East. If Steven Stamkos can find and retain the rhythm he had early last year, Tampa Bay could be dangerous, while the Flyers, Rangers and Habs can’t be discounted as dark horse picks in April. Though a return to the Finals is by no means a certainty for the Canucks, one thing is: whoever comes out of the East won’t go down without a fight.

A return trip to the top of the mountain for the Canucks will be long and arduous, but it begins with a single step, and that comes tomorrow night against the Penguins. Coming one win short of taking home the Stanley Cup will haunt Vancouver until next spring, and no amount of records, accolades, or trophies will exorcise that demon. Anything short of Stanley for these guys will be considered a bust.

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