Tonight, the Vancouver Canucks will battle the Vegas Golden Knights for the top of the Western Conference standings.
Let’s just take a moment and let that sentence sink in and think about how far the Canucks have come in a short period of time.
A year ago at this exact same time, the Canucks were mired in mediocrity, sitting in sixth place in the Pacific Division with a 9-11-3 record. The Canucks’ star skaters were racking up points but the Canucks couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net. The penalty kill was historically bad, repeatedly giving up cross-seam passes for dangerous scoring chances.
Partly because of that deplorable defensive environment, Thatcher Demko was struggling with an .885 save percentage. Even worse, he was about to suffer an injury on December 1 that would take him out of the lineup for the next three months.
All hope was not yet lost but it was dwindling at a rapid pace.
The Canucks’ stars are scoring even more than last year, with J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes, and Elias Pettersson all in the top ten in points, while Brock Boeser leads the NHL in goals. More importantly, the Canucks are keeping the puck out of their own net, averaging just 2.48 goals against per game — the fourth lowest in the NHL. That combination of scoring prowess and defensive structure — as well as a resurgent Demko — has given them the NHL’s best goal differential.
As a result, the Canucks have a 15-7-1 record for 31 points. That’s good for fourth in the NHL and second in the Western Conference behind only their Pacific Division rivals, the Vegas Golden Knights at 32 points.
That means, with a win on Thursday night, the Canucks could pass the Golden Knights for first place in the West.
What a difference a year makes.
The Canucks are well aware of what this game against the defending Stanley Cup champions could mean.
“These are the games you should be excited about,” said head coach Rick Tocchet on Wednesday. “The crowd will be into it. The spotlight’s going to be on this game for us. If I’m a player, you want to be involved, you want to be in these pressure situations.”
At the same time, Tocchet has cautioned all season that you can’t get too high or low, something the players have taken to heart.
“If we win, we’re not going to think we’re the hot shots and if we lose, we’re not, ‘Oh my god, the sky is falling’ — we don’t think that way,” said Tocchet.
The Canucks also know they can’t rest on their laurels, primarily because they don’t yet have any laurels to rest on. There’s still three-quarters of the season left to play.
“We haven’t really done anything yet,” said general manager Patrik Allvin on Wednesday. “We’re still working to get better and that’s the mindset we have here with the coaching staff and the players.”
But even if sitting in first place in the Western Conference still wouldn’t qualify as having done something, it’ll likely feel pretty good for Canucks fans.