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Jeff Paterson: Running for President

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks

If the National Hockey League regular season is a marathon, then the Vancouver Canucks are into the final few metres and the sprint is on to see who breaks the tape and finishes first.

With just two games to go and riding a season-best seven game win streak, the Canucks have put themselves in position to finish first overall for a second straight season.

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Jeff Paterson is an analyst on Team 1040 Radio and is a columnist with the Georgia Straight newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter @patersonjeff

The New York Rangers are right there running stride for stride with the Canucks and both teams can hear the footsteps of the St. Louis Blues as they make a push to pull ahead and win the race at the wire.

The question now is what exactly are these teams racing for?

Obviously, the Presidents' Trophy goes to the team that finishes atop of the NHL regular season standings. But hardware itself is hardly coveted. No player ever touches the Presidents' Trophy because all they want is to get the big prize – the Stanley Cup.

The biggest tangible benefit to finishing first overall comes in the form of home ice advantage through the playoffs. The Canucks enjoyed it last year – and used it effectively for the most part – and it’s certainly something they would welcome with open arms again this season.

But starting a series at home and getting the chance to play host to a Game 7, if necessary, doesn’t always ensure victory as the Canucks learned the hard way last June 15th. However, it’s interesting to note just how advantageous being the higher seed has been for the Canucks over the past 17 years.

Since 1995, the Canucks are 7-4 in playoff series that have started in Vancouver. They were 3-1 last season and are 4-1 the past five times that they have opened on home ice. By contrast, the Canucks are 1-6 the last seven times they have had to open a playoff series on the road and have not been able to pull off a playoff upset as the lower-seeded team since a seven-game victory in the opening round of the 1995 playoffs when Kirk McLean made 41 saves, Pavel Bure scored twice and they won the deciding contest 5-3 in St. Louis.

To illustrate the importance of home ice advantage even further, the Canucks have won the opener of the past 10 playoff series played at Rogers Arena. By comparison, the Canucks have managed to win just two of the last seven series openers as the visitors.

The Canucks have been a terrific home ice team again this season and would surely prefer to start all of their playoff series in Vancouver. However, the team has been the best road club in the Western Conference all season and among the league-leaders in road performances so there is certainly a strong foundation in place should the Canucks have to start later round series away from home.

The other consideration for the Canucks is that the St. Louis Blues have a sterling 30-5-4 home ice record this season. Making the Blues travel to start a series and wrestling the right to host a potential game seven could be a huge factor should that series materialize and ultimately go that far.

With two games to go and the Canucks controlling their own fate as far as finishing first in the West is concerned, it only makes sense that this hockey club would pull out all stops to ensure top spot in the conference. With so many good teams qualifying for the post-season in both conferences this year there is a very good chance of an upset somewhere along the line.

As such, the Canucks shouldn’t concern themselves too much with the Presidents' Trophy.

They won it last year and know that it doesn’t come with any guarantees of the big prize at the end of the playoffs. If it lands in their laps at the end of this race, they’ll surely take it. But if the Rangers fend them off over the final few nights, they can deal with that at a later date should the two teams survive to meet in the Final.

The conference title should be the primary goal now and make the road to the Stanley Cup come through Vancouver for a second straight season. If the Canucks can take care of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers over the final few nights of the season, they will prove themselves to be best in the West.

History has shown that the Canucks are a formidable foe on home ice in the playoffs and that the road hasn’t been all that kind to them at playoff time over the past 17 years.

At the very least, they’ve already secured home ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs – these final two games of the regular season will determine the rest.

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