Friday January 8th, 2010

The Vancouver Canucks have managed to generate a few less-than-flattering headlines lately.

First there was the Mathieu Schneider situation, a mutually desired break-up only slightly less acrimonious than the whole Jon and Kate thing. "Mathieu's had a real good career in the NHL," said coach Alain Vigneault before hoisting the 40-year-old defender by the seat of his pants and giving him the bum's rush. "We wish him the best of luck and we're going to leave it at that."

Then it was Mikael Samuelsson, who updated the manual for bridge-burning with his verbal flip-off of Team Sweden after he was bypassed for a spot on the Olympic roster. "I pretty much have one comment and maybe I'll regret it," Samulesson said shortly after learning of the snub. "But they can go f*** themselves. That's what I really think."

Aw Mike, you ol' honey dripper.

Tough not to focus on TMZ-quality material like that. But here's what's been overlooked amid all the sensationalist clutter: on the strength of a quiet 11-2-1 run, these Canucks have emerged from the weeds to grab a share of first place in the Northwest Division.

Sure, they've played one game more than the Calgary Flames, who they host Saturday night in a battle for sole possession of top spot, but after 43 contests just three clubs -- the Devils, Blackhawks and Sharks -- have compiled more wins than Vancouver's 27.

"They're a tough team to beat right now," said Ed Jovanovski after the Canucks squashed his Coyotes 4-0 on Thursday.

Actually, they've been a tough team to beat for the last month.

At the beginning of December, the Canucks trailed the Flames by nine points and were listing dangerously, victimized by ineffectual play on the road and a striking inability to score goals when they needed them most. A frustrated Vigneault issued a challenge to his troops.

"What do you do for us when the game is 2-2, when you are down by a goal or up by a goal?" he asked. "Can you make that difference? That is when you can tell the difference between a professional, a clutch player, a guy that wants to be out there."

Since then, the road wins have come -- they took seven of eight points on their most recent trip -- and so have the timely goals. Case in point: Samuelsson's marker with five seconds left in the second period against Phoenix. Holding a 1-0 lead, the Canucks were under seige the entire period, outshot 16-1 late in the frame by the aggressive Coyotes. The tide and ultimately the game turned when Ryan Kesler won a battle along the boards and dished a pass to Samuelsson, who banked a shot off Ilya Bryzgalov's pad and broke Phoenix's spirit.

It wasn't the prettiest victory of their hot streak, but it was the sort of win that good teams snatch to keep the ball rolling.

Thursday's win was Vancouver's fourth in a row, a season high. They play seven of their next nine at The Garage where they're 18-6. It's a key stretch that precedes a 14-game, Olympic-inspired journey that won't see the Canucks skating at GM Place from Jan. 28 through March 12. For a team that has struggled to make hay on the road, it's a stretch that could define their season.

That's where the confidence they've gained over the last month could be critical. They've started doing the small things that win games on the road. They're getting solid goaltending from Roberto Luongo. The penalty kill is thriving, holding the line on 47 of the last 51 chances they've faced.

And then there are the Sedins.

"The twins are going pretty good," Jovanovski observed.

No kidding.

Henrik was named the NHL's Player of the Month for December after recording 25 points in 14 games. In three January contests, he has eight points, including three against Phoenix. He's recorded at least two points in four straight and only one of those came on the power play. He's been held off the score sheet just once in his last 17 games, blowing by Joe Thornton for the NHL scoring lead.

And he's not just piling up the assists, either. The new-look Henrik evolved -- out of necessity or maturity -- when brother Daniel missed 18 games with a broken foot. "He discovered his scoring touch by shooting more and going to those tough areas and scoring some dirty goals rather than staying to the outside and making plays," linemate Alex Burrows told Vancouver media.

With Daniel back at full health, the line is as dangerous as any in the league. The twins have combined for 61 points in their last 18 games and Burrows has found his own scoring touch, notching back-to-back hat tricks.

But as well as the top line and Kesler's trio have been operating, the Canucks aren't within hailing distance of the Hawks and Sharks, and that poses a challenge for GM Mike Gillis. Vigneault's gotten good milage out of the defense (who could have imagined they'd get as much as they have out of Christian Ehrhoff, or that Shane O'Brien could play with such discipline?), but the losses of Schneider and Kevin Bieksa (out two-to-three months with severed tendons in his ankle) mean that the GM will have to find a more adequate solution than Aaron Rome. The Canucks could also use a true fourth line center with skills on the PK and in the face-off circle. Neither of those additions would bridge the gap, but they could at least keep the Canucks in the conversation.

And for a team that's been overlooked this long, the conversation wouldn't be a bad place to be.

You don't want to over react one way or the other about a player's development path based on one tournament, but it's fair to say no one did more for their reputation at the World Juniors than Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter. The 17-year-old draft-eligible winger was thought to be a high-second, maybe late-first round pick prior to the event. After dominating a couple of key games, including Switzerland's medal round upset of Russia, his stock has risen to the middle of the first round.

One scout even suggested that Niederreiter could go top-10. "You don't expect much from under-agers at these events," he said, "but he looked like he had something to prove. He drove to the net at will, and ... [at 6-1, 205] it's not like he's a beast. He just wouldn't be stopped. He wants the puck when the game's on the line. It was an impressive performance."

Probably won't be Niederreiter's last for the Swiss this season. He's eligible to play in the Under-18 tournament this spring and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him invited to don the white cross at the senior men's World Championship in Germany.

Trade wind

Whispers of impending major trades are understandable, but at this point it's more wishful thinking on the part of fans and media than anything based in reality. No doubt that calls have been placed and the feeling-out process has begun as teams like the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Oilers slip into next-season mode, but there's still that pesky issue of the salary cap. The math for the contenders, especially the big spenders, hasn't changed -- the longer teams wait, the greater their ability to fit an expensive player under the cap. There may yet be movement before the Olympic break -- you can't rule out the Thrashers cutting ties with Ilya Kovalchuk over failed contract extension talks -- but it's more likely that any action will transpire between March 1 and 3.

Just askin'

Watching the Maple Leafs give away another one, this time 6-3 to the Flyers on Wednesday night, I can't help but wonder why Niklas Hagman, the author of a team-leading 16 goals, is skating on the fourth line and getting less even-strength ice time than everyone but linemate Jamal Mayers. Not that the streaky Hagman's game is without fault, but on a team that's as hard-pressed for goals as the Leafs, doesn't he deserve the same opportunity to work through his slump (three points in his last 12) as golden boy Phil Kessel (one point in 10 games)?

Diver down

The chickens really came home to roost for Mike Ribeiro against the Rangers on Wednesday night. The Dallas center was booed mercilessly by the MSG crowd while lying on the ice after taking an accidental stick in the throat from Chris Higgins. The injury was legit (he required a tracheotomy later that night) but it's tough to earn any sympathy on the road when you carry a well-earned reputation as one of the league's most flagrant divers.

Tough break, too, for the stumbling Stars, who'll be without their leading scorer of the past two seasons for the next four-six weeks. Ribeiro's absence means they'll have to rely on Mike Modano, who brings about as much effort to his job as the average Wal-Mart greeter, to fill in as second-line center. Between that, a goaltender who has allowed at least three goals in eight of 10 starts, and a defense that dresses just three ready-for-prime-time players, playoff hopes have dimmed considerably in Big D.

As ugly as that 5-2 loss in New York was, it offered up two of the season's best post-game quotes as collected by the great Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News.

Marty Turco on Sean Avery, who had a career-best four-point night against his former team: "I would have liked to see that delinquent do that for us last year."

Avery on what led to the epic night:

"I was getting paid by two teams."

The big Foppa question

News that Peter Forsberg had been named to the Swedish Olympic team generated plenty of mail wondering about his potential for post-Games employment in the NHL. To clear it all up at once, it can't happen. Since he suited for MoDo of the Swedish league, Forsberg is ineligible to join an NHL team this season.

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