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Canucks' winning ways masking bad habits

Photo from Flickr/Dinur

Ten games into the season and the following two statements are true simultaneously: Buffalo Sabres’ winger Thomas Vanek is on pace for 99 points in 48 games, and the Vancouver Canucks are on pace for a 67-point season and another easy Northwest Division title.

The second trend line is about as useful as the first, meaning they’re both fairly useless.

Vanek’s trajectory would see him churning out a level of production unseen since the days when Wayne Gretzky was tossing out 180-plus point seasons like he had six or seven of them taking up room in his garage. The Canucks, meanwhile, would raise no eyebrows at all if they met expectations and casually captured the Northwest. Which they will, barring disaster.

And yet, on merit, it’s all a bit upside down.

We know Vanek’s numbers will crash back to Earth, despite the fact he’s playing outstanding hockey on a struggling team and earning every point he gets with little of the ‘puck luck’ one would expect from a player boasting 21 markers in 10 outings. And we know the Canucks will likely continue their march up the standings, despite the fact they’re playing less than inspired hockey and boasting a power play with a 15.7% success rate, which is good for 22nd in the NHL.

Stats-projections have a sense of humor, but you can’t laugh off reality.

The Canucks have been playing inconsistent and error-riddled hockey (relative to their own standards) for three weeks. On the strength of the best goaltending tandem in the league they’ve cobbled together an unnerving 6-2-2 record, which somewhat flatters them.

This is, after all, a team with designs on lifting the Cup — and they’re coming out flat game after game and squeaking out victories against lowly teams like Edmonton and Colorado and handing out loser points like they’re lollipops.

There are signs the Canucks are turning the corner. The last four games — all wins — have been better, though the power play over that span clocks in at an embarrassing 10.5%. A rate that would be equivalent to 29th in the league. Nevertheless the Canucks’ efforts against Colorado, Chicago and Edmonton grew successively tighter and more impressive and then were capped on Thursday night in Minnesota.

There, the Canucks put together their best, most complete game of the season, beating the Wild 4-1. There were no squandered leads or jaw-dropping defensive breakdowns. The power play wasn’t entirely impotent and there was no hanging on for dear life late in the third period. Not generally the kinds of signs one looks at as progress for Stanley Cup contenders but you know, baby steps.

Overall in Minnesota they were tighter defensively, the Sedin’s and Alex Burrows showed some flashes of their old selves on the cycle, and Cory Schneider was solid without needing to stand on his head.

The four game win streak is an encouraging building block, not a sign that all is well. With the exception of their game against Chicago (which was uncharacteristically flat) the Canucks beat the leagues 22nd, 27th, and 28th ranked offenses in the Avalanche, Oilers, and Wild. Colorado couldn’t have scored if it had spent the entire game on the power play and the flashy young Edmonton Oilers somehow failed to show up entirely. There was no push-back against the Canucks in either game, or again late last night in Minnesota.

There are no easy wins in the NHL — but there are varying degrees of difficulty. The Canucks have found themselves getting rewarded for less than stellar play against less than impressive opponents and the danger now is falling into a mentality of taking wins and progress for granted.

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