The Vancouver Canucks celebrate their win over the St. Louis in early March

The Vancouver Canucks celebrate their win over the St. Louis in early March

Swing Low, Sweet Canucks: Vancouver’s a Playoff Team, But Are They Really?

Canucks have turned in tremendous wins over Chicago, New York and St. Louis this year, but they've also rolled over against Colorado and Co.

Jim Benning says the Vancouver Canucks can compete with anyone. And he’s right, because the Canucks can very literally compete with anyone.

Now, it’s not like the Colorado Avalanche are a flat of pylons. They have offensive stars like Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, and Nathan McKinnon, usually. Add in Jarome Iginla and one of the game’s most dynamic young defenders in Tyson Barrie, plus last year’s goalie of the year, sorta, Semyon Varlamov. They finished second in the Western Conference last year, when things started well and momentum refused to run empty. The Avs are more than capable of beating any team, any night – just like the Canucks are.

And Columbus has lost basically an entire season to injury, but their roster is potent when healthy. The New Jersey Devils have, in my mind, the third-best goaltender in the National Hockey League in Cory Schneider. Even Buffalo or Arizona can’t lose every game, as much as their fans may wish.

But this isn’t about the Canucks losing one-offs to weak opponents. It’s about them playing down – or playing up – to whoever they’re across from.

“Once we get in, I’m excited about what this group can do in the playoffs this year, for sure,” Benning, Vancouver’s GM, said Thursday on TSN 1040 radio.

Hey, I’m excited, too. Because I have no idea what they can do, and I don’t know how it’ll look. In the same way I’m excited for the final season of Mad Men or for what happens when I toss aluminum in a microwave, I’m excited for Vancouver’s playoff appearance – if they can hang onto that, because they’ve had a one-goal third-period lead since December.

And their record is littered with not just ugly losses, but ugly performances. 6-3 to Buffalo. 6-2 to San Jose. 6-2 to Columbus. 4-1 last night, to Colorado.

Even that L.A. win, which has been pinned up as some sort of heroic tide-turning effort, even though it was razor-tight and over a team below the Canucks in the standings, comes as a cautionary tale.

L.A. had two shorthanded breakaways in that game. Both were stopped by Eddie Lack. But the Canucks surrendered them, and you can bet at least one of those would go in come April, when one loss – even one goal – means an early summer.

“Every team has good players and players who are playing for contracts, and Toronto’s no different,” said head coach Willie Desjardins a couple weeks ago, before Vancouver’s 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs. “They’ll come in and they’ll play hard, and we have to be ready for them.”

The coach’s ethos of giving credit to every team that strolls up to meet Henrik Sedin at centre ice is laudable and, probably, intelligent. You never want to underestimate your foe… but it doesn’t mean you have to pass them the puck, or that you shouldn’t take social cues.

It’s also courteous of Desjardins, and it comes from the right place. And he’s correct – every team has players who can score, who can show up and shut up the haters, even the black hole that is Toronto’s blue-clad Leafs. I said as much myself at the start of this column.

But there’s a difference, truly, between being prepared and giving up your serve. It’s one thing to size-up your opponent – it’s another for Desjardins and his team to intentionally meet a shorter man at his forehead.

“I mean, we’ve been bad against teams below us in the standings, so it’s something that we’ve gotta come out with lots of energy, get the crowd with us from the start,” said Eddie Lack, who’s re-morphed into a No. 1 with Ryan Miller out and ailing.

But of course, Lack’s not the problem here. Last night, he made 34 saves on 37 shots and was shelled with 31 pucks in the first 40 minutes. Lack isn’t always great, but Lack’s never the problem.

The rest of the group just forgot to show up.

The Canucks have to know when they have to win a game. They seem to get it when they’re the underdog – when they’re up against Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, both New Yorks, Anaheim, even Boston, all teams Vancouver has beaten in the past two months. (I get the feeling they’re as surprised as their fans are when they beat a so-called Cup contender… that can’t be good, can it?)

They’re very aware, it seems, of when they have to look up and swing high. But where’s that consciousness when they’re standing over a dying man?

If they’re not careful, they’ll become the Viper

But even he knew better, it seems, before his final battle: “Size does not matter when you’re flat on your back.”

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