Friday April 1st, 2011

Strong defense and solid goaltending are just two of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks' strengths as they head for what should be a deep run in the playoffs. (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

In their 40th season, the Canucks have finally finished first overall, clinching the Presidents' Trophy with their 3-1 victory over the Kings on Thursday night. The win was revealing in a couple of ways, first in how truly good Vancouver has been all season. Despite a run of injuries to their defense corps and the recent loss of Manny Malhotra, they have made the necessary adjustments and dealt with obstacles while getting stronger as the season progresses. In March, the Canucks grabbed 26 of a possible 30 points, a blistering pace.

The Canucks are well-coached by Alain Vigneault and his staff, a fact that is often overlooked. Everyone talks about how deep this team is up front, led by the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and so on, but Vancouver plays very strong team defense. The Canucks held the Kings to no shots on goal in the third period (which also speaks to L.A.'s weakened offense without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams). Vancouver also leads the league in power play and special teams (the way they moved the puck on their late third-period power play against L.A.'s very good penalty killing was quite impressive), and that's due to coaching, too. If special teams and goaltending are the formula for playoff success, the Canucks show no signs of weakness headed into the postseason.

GM Mike Gillis has done an excellent job putting this group together and he made some astute pickups at the trade deadline. And the Canucks are getting healthy again, with defensemen Alex Edler, Andrew Alberts and Dan Hamhuis all closer to returning for the playoffs, if not sooner. Forwards Tanner Glass and Mikael Samuelsson could be back on Saturday.

Vancouver fans who have become accustomed to the hockey gods conspiring against the Canucks season after season, or to living through the horrors of their favorite team annually finding ways to mess up, finally have something to celebrate. One suspects, however, that they're holding back, hoping for something bigger down the road.

Eastern Promises: The Lightning clinched their first playoff spot in four years -- four very long years -- by defeating the Penguins 2-1 on Thursday as Dwayne Roloson stopped 36 shots. With new ownership and a new direction charted by GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher,  Tampa Bay had a very strong first half but has stagnated since. The Lightning took some steps backward during March, going through a stretch of winning only one regulation game in 12 and only one other in a shootout, gaining seven of 24 points in total. They've now won three straight.

It looks as if Tampa Bay will play the Penguins in the first round, and the Lighting have won twice in Pittsburgh this season. The game on Thursday night was a playoff-style match and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma praised the Bolts afterward (video), saying. "They have some dangerous parts of their team. They have some skilled players. They have a very good power play. They added some good goaltending. That makes them a hard team to play against. That was a hard-fought game. There was action at both ends and I thought that game there was a preview of how it's going to look."

"We've established certain standards and a work ethic," Yzerman said (quoted in The St. Petersburg Times). "We've accomplished a few things, but it doesn't make it a successful season yet."

Meanwhile, Down Below: The bottom of the Eastern Conference has tightened considerably in recent days, with the Hurricanes and even the Maple Leafs not going quietly into the night. They're still chasing the Rangers, Sabres and Canadiens.

On March 13, the gap between the sixth-place Habs and the 10th-place Leafs was 13 points. Now, on April 1, it's down to seven. The 'Canes, who had lost four straight in mid-March, have won six of their last eight. The Leafs have won six of their last nine.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have dropped two straight, the Sabres could be without goalie Ryan Miller this weekend and the Canadiens have lost five of their last seven.

Carolina, riding the hot play of rookie Jeff Skinner, is just a point behind the eighth-place Rangers with a game in hand. The Hurricanes have been targeting Sunday's game against Buffalo as a big one, although they have to get through the Islanders first on Saturday. The 'Canes are two points behind the Sabres as of this writing.

Toronto has been bolstered by a quartet of rookie call-ups, including goalie James Reimer (who our Adrian Dater profiled last week), defenseman Keith Aulie (who was a steal in the trade with Calgary that also brought the Leafs Dion Phaneuf), Darryl Boyce, and Nazem Kadri. The Leafs won the postgame skills competition on Kadri's shot... grab the bonus point against the Bruins on Thursday night and are still breathing, five points out of eighth.

Pronger Problem: It was thought that Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who has been out of the lineup since March 10 and had a screw inserted in his broken hand on March 15, would be back in the lineup for a few games prior to the playoffs, but GM Paul Holmgren said on Thursday that it won't happen: “I think we probably pushed a little quickly in the rehab and we classified it as a minor setback. We were kind of hoping that he would be able to play some games here at the end of the regular season, but that’s more than likely out of the equation. We're not going to get real aggressive at this point. Obviously the playoffs are more important now. We still have about 10-12 days to go. We’ll monitor it on a daily basis. He hasn’t done much in terms of rehab on his hand in the last two days.”

The Flyers have a 5-2-4 mark since Pronger went out. If he's not 100 percent for the playoffs, it's certainly going to impact their chances, considering he averaged over 29 minutes per game last spring in their run to the Cup Final.

Cheap Shot: We praised the NHL yesterday for its use of video review, citing a play from Wednesday's Ducks-Flames game as an example. At the end of the same game, the Flames' Mark Giordano drove his knee into Anaheim's Bobby Ryan well away from the play.

This went undetected by the on-ice officials and apparently there was nothing about it that NHL Hockey Operations felt deserved supplementary discipline. Ryan doesn't seem to have been badly injured, but after the game, he told The Orange County Register's Eric Stephens that he thought it was a dirty play (video), and it was.

What purpose did Giordano have to make that play other than try to injure Ryan? Watching the game in real time, Ryan dished off the puck a full two seconds before contact. Giordano was likely upset at the Flames having just surrendered an empty net goal that pretty much meant defeat and non-participation in the playoffs, and Ryan, who has sparred with Giordano regularly, was the target of his frustrations.

Perhaps Hockey Ops considers this "a hockey play," or not worthy of any further action since Ryan didn't leave the Saddledome on crutches, but like so many other things that they let slide, this kind of cheap shot is best not ignored.

Pioneer Passes Away: Most hockey fans haven't heard of Dr. Gerry Wilson, the Winnipeg physician whose son Carey played 10 years in the NHL, mostly with Calgary. His grandson, Colin, currently plays for the Predators. Dr. Wilson, who died this week at 73, also played a crucial role in changing hockey in North America when he recommended that the WHA's Winnipeg Jets sign Swedish forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson in 1974.

Along with Bobby Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson helped introduce aspects of the international-style game -- more passing, skating and puck possession -- and blended them with the physical North American style to propel the Jets to three WHA championships in four seasons. That hybrid style, which greatly informs the current NHL, made its way in with Hedberg and Nilsson when the joined the New York Rangers in 1978. Playing that style, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times in seven seasons.

Dr. Wilson was in Sweden doing post-graduate medical research when he saw Hedberg playing for his school's team. Hedberg introduced Dr. Wilson to Nilsson, who was skating for a different team and Dr. Wilson contacted the Jets, who sent scout Billy Robinson over to take a look. Robinson agreed with Dr. Wilson's assessment and the Jets signed both players.

Dr. Wilson had been a star junior player in Canada and a prospect of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, but his career was short-circuited by injuries. He later became the Jets' team doctor and a vice president of the club.

There's more on Dr. Wilson in these stories from The Winnipeg Sun, The Winnipeg Free Press and The Hockey News.

Limp Wings: And finally, after their 10-3 defeat by the Blues on Wednesday -- the first time they had surrendered double-digits in goals since Oct. 9, 1993 -- the bags were out for Red Wings' practice on Thursday. And the quotes were predictable. "I think it was a wake-up call for all of us," said captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who was minus-3 against St. Louis. "If you don't show up for a game, you're going to lose. We were embarrassed about what happened last night, all of us here."

They Wings will wake up on Saturday in Nashville where they must face the Predators without Pavel Datsyuk, who will miss his seventh straight game with a lower body injury.

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