Today the President’s Trophy… Tomorrow the Cup?

I cannot recall a time when a team won the President’s Trophy as stealthily as the Vancouver Canucks did this season. This time last year the Canucks were the story in the NHL: dominating the league during the regular season like no Canucks team ever did before; garnering individual honors aplenty before losing so mysteriously and weakly against the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

This season was different. Smarting from their humiliating loss the Canucks started slowly, tentatively, playing at the .500 level until mid-November; allowing other teams to garner the headlines and the spotlight: the Canucks seemed destined to give way even further.

But it didn’t happen that way. The Canucks rallied and coupled with the dramatic collapse of the Minnesota Wild (who had been dominating the Northwest Division at the time) the team regained its pride and reasserted its dominance on the ice: going 42-13-8 for the remainder of the season; outlasting the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and the St. Louis Blues in the quest for the President’s Trophy.

This season was tougher, sterner for the Canucks. The team battled injuries, most prominently Daniel Sedin coping with a concussion but in a way the team’s suffering may have had a positive effect on the franchise’s collective soul. They have been forced to reach further down and work harder for the Cup. Last season it was all too easy and one wonders if that ease coupled with the relentless spotlight played a key role in the Canuck’s in the Cup finals.

Certain objects when exposed to intense light for prolonged periods of time can fade, lose definition, or wilt altogether. One can speculate that’s what happened to Vancouver in the playoffs but this year is different. Vancouver has played under the radar; replicating its dominance of the NHL and is poised to go after the Stanley Cup once more.

Their offense and defense remain top-notch and well balanced. Their goaltending has improved with the emergence of Cory Schneider as a solid back-up. Schneider started 1/3 of the team’s games and manned the pipes with a solid 1.96 GAA. Last year’s playoffs saw Roberto Luongo get chased from the nets four times. If Luongo should falter again then they have a solid reserve in Schneider.

The 2012 playoffs hinge on Roberto Luongo. Last year was an intense learning experience for the veteran goalie that left a lot of questions which can only be answered when the playoffs begin today. Has Luongo emerged from the hellfire of 2011 stronger and more mature? Can Luongo maintain his composure and confidence in the face of the future onslaught from the other Western Conference teams? Can he avoid being chased from the nets?

The first round of the playoffs will not be a cakewalk for the Canucks. Indeed their opponents have upset potential. The Los Angeles Kings may have a pea-shooter offense but their defense and penalty-killing capability is superior to Vancouver.

Don’t forget last year the Canucks eked out a second round playoff victory over the Nashville Predators; beating the Nashville in six games but only scoring 14 goals in the process. Had Nashville offered up any offense at all the series might have ended differently.

This year the Kings have that same potential. If they can get their D going…if Jonathan Quick can maintain his enormous potential between the pipes…if the Kings can score when it counts while shutting down the Canuck offense (like Boston did in 2011) then a first round upset is not impossible.

That is why the old Japanese military proverb “when you’re winning, tighten your helmet strap” is applicable to the Canucks. Last year they allowed the Predators to make them look bad. Here’s an opportunity for the Canucks to show growth and not allow that to happen.

And knowing Alain Vigneault (who this season became the greatest head coach in Canucks franchise history) he will make sure they do not forget that lesson.

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