The Vancouver Canucks came within one victory of claiming the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history last season. They have been waiting for a chance to atone for their Game 7 loss at home to the Boston Bruins for nearly 10 months, but the Canucks ensured that opportunity by clinching a postseason berth and the Northwest Division title on Saturday.
Here are a few reasons why the Canucks are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and back among the League's top contenders to win the Cup:
1. They are the class of the Northwest Division: Vancouver is going to win the division for the fourth straight season and a fifth time in six campaigns. Edmonton and Colorado are in the process of rebuilding, while Calgary and Minnesota have been stuck in a group of teams fighting for a spot near the bottom of the top eight for the past few seasons. The Oilers, Wild and Avalanche are led by young stars and should be ready to challenge the Canucks in a season or two, but for now the Canucks are kings of the Northwest.
2. They have one of the deepest rosters in the West: Any club with four world-class players like the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo is probably going to be in the mix for the playoffs, even with a suspect supporting cast. The Canucks, on the other hand, complement their stars with a collection of quality players. They have been able to withstand a slow start after offseason surgery for Kesler, a slight "down" year for the Sedin twins (compared to the past two seasons, at least) and a stretch where Luongo struggled and still be one of the top teams in the League because of that depth.
3. One of the best blue line quartets: Detroit has Nicklas Lidstrom. Nashville has Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The Canucks don't have a Norris Trophy candidate, but what they do have is four guys who could all be in the top pairing for nearly any team in the League. Alexander Edler has been the team's best offensive defenseman with 11 goals and 45 points. Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa face the toughest competition, but Hamhuis in particular has had a great year preventing goals. Sami Salo has a strong bounce-back season after missing so much time with injury in 2010-11.
4. Corey Schneider is the best backup goalie in the NHL: Luongo has been streaky at times, but otherwise he has had a solid season despite immense pressure and people lining up to call for Schneider any time he struggled. What has helped push Vancouver toward the top of the NHL standings has been coach Alain Vigneault's ability to turn to Schneider. He is 16-7-1 with a .933 save percentage, and someone is going to pay him significantly more than the $900,000 he is making this season for the 2012-13 campaign.
5: Cody Hodgson became an NHL player: Hodgson was a high pick and a top prospect with high expectations who hadn't put it together in part because of injury. He became a fixture on the team's third line this season and was quite productive with 16 goals and 33 points in 63 games. It wasn't always a smooth ride for Hodgson in Vancouver, and he was traded to Buffalo for Zack Kassian, but Hodgson's added offense made Vancouver's attack even more impressive.
6. The Canucks got a little meaner: Boston bullied Vancouver in the Cup Final, dominating the Canucks physically and wearing them down over the course of the series. There were a couple of personnel moves to help in the "toughness" department, but more importantly the Canucks have been motivated by the experience against the Bruins and have been better for it. It remains to be seen if the team's new collective attitude adjustment will payoff in the postseason.