After treading water through a long slate of injuries, Kesler’s return against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday gives the Canucks four legitimate NHL centers for the first time all season. With Derek Roy added at the NHL Trade Deadline, the question is whether they also are back as legitimate contenders in the Western Conference.
Coming off consecutive Presidents' Trophies as the NHL’s top regular-season team, and two years removed from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, Vancouver certainly hasn’t looked the part this season. The Canucks have been notably absent from the contender conversations dominated by the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and a Los Angeles Kings team that hasn't changed much since eliminating Vancouver in five games last season en route to the Stanley Cup.
Henrik Sedin said. "But if you look at the team we’ve had this year and the guys that were missing, we have done a tremendous job keeping it together and staying in the race. You have to look at the positive instead of looking at us not winning the Presidents' Trophy. We haven’t had the lineup we want -- or need -- to be successful in the playoffs."
They are closer to that lineup now, after playing most of this season with two bona fide NHL centers, one of whom was fourth-liner Maxim Lapierre. Injuries have kept Kesler, a Selke Trophy winner in 2011, out for all but eight games and shutdown center Manny Malhotra was shut down by Canucks management after nine games because of concerns that his limited vision was affecting his safety.
Thin up the middle, Vancouver scraped by on goaltending and a stingy defense, putting together a six-game win streak in late March that included a pair of 1-0 victories – one was goalless until the third round of a shootout – to regain a slight edge atop a Northwest Division they’ve dominated in recent years.
"It wasn’t pretty," Sedin said. "You have to be able to win different ways."
With the addition of Roy and the return of Kesler, not to mention the recent returns of forwards Mason Raymond, Zack Kassin and Dale Weise, the Canucks seem better suited to winning the way they used to. By pushing the pace, wearing teams down on the forecheck and maybe even dominating third periods again.
That certainly wasn't the case earlier this season.
"We’ve been a beat-up team, guys in and out of the lineup, in different positions, even defensemen playing forward," said Raymond, who returned from a shoulder injury Saturday. "But getting a full lineup, it is exciting. We can build off things and maybe get a little more creativity. We haven’t scored a lot. If you can open up a little, that creates confidence within the group and a little comfort."
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In recent road losses to the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks, there was little offensive pushback after falling behind. They scored more than two goals four times in a 16-game stretch dating to March 3, and one of those games included two empty-net markers. But in their first two games with Roy, who was a longtime No. 1 center with the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver found its offensive spark again, scoring nine goals.
With Kesler back, Roy is effectively Vancouver’s third-line center.
"Our line is nothing to sniff at," said Roy, who is flanked by Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. "It's going to be hard to put top D on certain lines and match up, especially in playoffs. It will be hard to figure out who to match up against."
The new-look lineup scored twice in its first game together against the Coyotes, but still dominated possession and zone time, outshooting Phoenix 42-19.
"Deeper in the middle, winning draws, possessing the puck, keeping cycles alive and not spending time in our end -- it makes a big difference," Cory Schneider said after his fourth shutout in nine games gave him a share of the NHL lead with five. "Tonight was the style of play we’re accustomed to and like to play."
There are still questions.
The Canucks still aren’t the same team that led the NHL in goals for and against before the run to the 2011 Cup Final. That team also led the League on the power play and was third on the penalty kill. This year’s defense is second to Chicago at 2.31 goals against per game and the penalty kill has climbed to 11th at 82.7 percent after a slow start.
But the power play is another matter. It ranks 26th in the NHL at 13.4 percent, more than 10 percent below the success rate of 2010-2011, and well back of last season, when it was fourth at 19.8. The return of Kesler, who has a shoot-first mentality opposite the pass-happy Sedin twins, will help, but the point play hasn’t been the same since Christian Ehrhoff left as a free agent two summers ago. Right-handed Sami Salo, who bolted a year later in free agency, is also missed.
With top-six forward David Booth out for the rest of the regular season and at least the start of the playoffs after ankle surgery, Vancouver wanted to add another big body. But Ryane Clowe was dealt to the New York Rangers and former Canucks forward Raffi Torres was traded to the San Jose Sharks, non-deals that became more troublesome with news Tuesday that grinding left wing Higgins, arguably the Canucks best forward the past four games, is out indefinitely with a unidentified lower body injury and isn't guaranteed to be back for the start of the playoffs.
What the Canucks lack in forward size, they will try to make up in speed, skill and depth. If that’s not enough to get them back in the contender chatter, so be it.
"In this city are we ever going to be underdogs? I don’t think so," Henrik Sedin said. "But there are a lot of teams in our conference that have made moves to get better and they might hopefully feel more pressure this year than us."
Alexandre Burrows said, "We just need to find the right chemistry, do the right things at the right moment and play well defensively and we will be a pretty scary team. We feel that we can beat anyone, no matter what anyone thinks about us on the outside, whether we’re a favorite or not, it doesn’t really matter."