Are The Vancouver Canucks The Most Promising NHL Playoff Dark Horse?

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Are The Vancouver Canucks The Most Promising NHL Playoff Dark Horse?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks cemented third place in the Western Conference by sealing the Northwest Division championship with a 3-1 triumph over the top-dog Chicago Blackhawks Monday night.

Losing head coach Joel Quenneville cited a shortage of effort on his team’s part, though it is hard to take too much away from the Canucks.

They just improved to 7-2-1 in the 10 games since they incorporated trade-deadline acquisition Derek Roy into the lineup. They are now 5-2-1 since April 8, when Ryan Kesler returned to action after a near six-week absence.

As time picks up, basic logic says Roy can only grow increasingly acclimated to his new place of employment and Kesler can only get closer to full form. The latter can also be said of Chris Higgins, who dressed for his first game in two full weeks against Chicago.

In turn, Vancouver’s need for offensive depth can only improve.

But will everything take shape in time for the winners of the previous two President’s Trophies and 2011 Western Conference champions to break out of the blue in the playoffs? To go deep and pose a greater threat to the clear-cut favorites than anybody else in either conference?

Actually, based on the standings going into Tuesday night’s NHL action, the most pressing question could turn out to be: “Can they break the Blues?”

More to the point as to where the Canucks rank among 2013 Stanley Cup dark horses: What about the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals out east, where the Pittsburgh Penguins are the indisputable favorite?

Let us start by focusing on Vancouver’s own conference. If the standings freeze in place through Saturday, the third-seeded Canucks would host the sixth-seeded St. Louis Blues in the opening round.

St. Louis is off to a 9-3-0 start in the month of April, its most recent outing being a 5-3 loss that was hardly indicative of what it can bring to the ice. Goaltender Brian Elliott has been in his long-lost, top-notch form for the better part of this month.

Elliott has not received much offensive support lately (only 12 regulation goals in the last 10 games prior to Tuesday), but the Blues remain a balanced ensemble.

A Vancouver-St. Louis matchup could go either way. Elliott has the means to stymie the Canucks’ kinetic offensive droves, but counterpart Cory Schneider could do the same to St. Louis.

Besides that, both clubs ought to be driven by the old-fashioned mantra of unfinished business. They were each dislodged by the eventual champion L.A. Kings in the first two rounds of last year’s playoffs.

By the way, despite their seeding, the Kings need not be labeled a “dark horse” the same way the Canucks are. Los Angeles has a dense, returning core of ring-bearers and has gone 21-8-4 down the stretch after an uncharacteristic 5-6-2 start to its title defense.

Of any other prospective first-round adversary, i.e. those they will have to deal with before they get a crack at Chicago or Anaheim, the Canucks have more-than-winnable scenarios.

As sound and Vezina-worthy as Antti Niemi has been in the San Jose Sharks’ net, it is not inconceivable for the likes of Vancouver to instill self-doubt to him in the playoffs.

At the start of Tuesday night’s NHL action, Columbus, Dallas and Minnesota all still had sixth place within reach, but all will have growing pains to deal with when and if they get to the postseason. Detroit has the opposite problem with its championship window long shut.

In addition, for what it’s worth, the Canucks could earn a slight advantage in the way of energy given that they can move no lower or higher in the standings, whereas everything beneath them still has yet to be determined.

But when it comes to confronting the logical favorites in the conference, this debate becomes a matter of comparing and contrasting the Canucks’ odds versus Chicago or one of the Southern California squads with that of any Eastern team against Pittsburgh.

Washington is sizzling at an opportune time and can bookend a formidable, driven matchup even against the Penguins between Alexander Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby.

Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers can likewise backbone an upset and, based on his team’s current seeding, could be paired with Pittsburgh sooner rather than later, when they have more in their collective tank.

Conversely, despite Monday’s uplifting result for the Vancouver faithful, the opposing Blackhawks know they were not as hungry as they usually are at Rogers Arena. As it happens, the President’s Trophy was the first regular-season clincher that Chicago failed to finalize on its first try.

Previously, before exposing their mortal human element for Vancouver’s benefit, the Hawks had clinched their playoff berth, first in the Central Division and first in the Western Conference all within a seven-game winning streak.

With their franchise and fanbase yearning for redemption, the Canucks can expect a gift they don’t want to waste in the form of a home crowd if they face the likes of the Blues in a Game 7.

With their enhanced roster coming together, they can assert themselves against last-minute playoff entrants and possibly put forth a compelling arm wrestling match with Anaheim or Los Angeles.

But do they have a celestial, Ovechkin-type or Lundqvist-type catalyst to rally around and threaten to derail the prospect of a titanic Chicago-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Finals?

The Canucks are approaching the postseason as a good-to-great dark horse, but not quite the best of all. A best-of-seven triumph over the Blackhawks would not necessarily be an unadulterated stunner, but the Caps and Blueshirts are generating a slightly sturdier advanced warning.

This is not to discount Vancouver by any means. Rather, in the tapering afterglow of Monday’s game, it is to give proper credit to the other dark horses and issue a cautionary reminder for all fanbases to keep a level head.

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