By Jeff Paterson
While it's true that all 82 games the Canucks will play this year will yield two points for a victory, there is no question that not all games are equal. The fact of the matter is some games are more important than others and certain stretches of the schedule carry more weight than others, too.
The Canucks are into one such run of games right now. In fact, it's probably not too soon to say now is 'crunch time'.
Starting with last Saturday's loss in Denver, the Canucks launched into a segment of the schedule during which they'll face divisional opponents 11 times in 17 games (Colorado, Edmonton and Minnesota twice each and Calgary a whopping five times). And starting with Tuesday's game against Columbus, the Canucks are kicking off a five game homestand and will play eight of their next nine games at General Motors Place.
For all the griping from Canuck Nation about the lack of goals so far this season, the Canucks have managed to stay within striking distance not only of the playoff bar, but of top spot in the tough Northwest Division. But it is abundantly clear that the only way to stay in that chase is to start winning the games they have to - against division rivals and on home ice.
So far this season, their divisional record (1-6-1) is a huge concern and their home record (5-5) leaves plenty of room for improvement.
You only have to look back to the end of last season to realize how important those two statistical categories were.
No team that qualified for last year's playoffs had a sub .500 record within its division. Edmonton managed to make the post-season going 15-15-2 against Northwest Division foes while Colorado, San Jose, Tampa Bay and New Jersey all won 16 games within their division.
As things stand right now, the Canucks have just one win in eight tries so far this season. That leaves 24 games remaining against their Northwest rivals.
Based on last year's numbers, the Canucks will need to win at least 14 of those final 24 games and 10 of them will be played between December 2nd and January 2nd. Simply put, as cold as it is outside these days, the Canucks have to find a way to get hot in a hurry.
As for the home record, the 16 playoff teams from a year ago averaged 26.4 wins in their own rinks last season (that number was slightly higher - 26.6 - in the Western Conference). Again, Edmonton managed to make the playoffs with only 20 wins in its own building while Philadelphia (22) and Montreal (24) were the only other teams to qualify for the post-season with fewer than 25 home ice victories.
The Canucks start this five game homestand having played reasonably well at home and yet they have just five wins in 10 tries on home ice. But to get to 25 home wins, they'd have to go 20-11 the rest of the way.
Anaheim (12-1-4), Nashville (6-1-2), Detroit (7-1-3) and Minnesota (9-1-1) all have only one regulation loss on home ice so far, while Edmonton, San Jose and Dallas have each lost only twice in regulation at home this season.
So you can see how tough all of those teams above the Canucks are at home. Now it's up to Alain Vigneault's group to make GM Place a difficult place for visitors to pick up victories.
It is true that last year's Canucks actually had a better record than the Oilers both within the division and at home and still failed to make the post-season, so success in those areas does not guarantee a playoff spot. What history shows us, though, is that no team with a worse record than the Oilers in those key categories qualified for the playoffs last year - so in essence, the Oilers outlined the bare minimums necessary to be around when the fun begins in April.
No one is saying the Canucks can't get there. But it's pretty clear that they have to crank up their play within the division and on home ice - and particularly on those occasions when those two overlap and they face the Flames, Avalanche, Oilers and Wild at GM Place.
It's an 82 game season, but the final 20 games won't mean much unless the Canucks find a way to win the big games right now. So let the 'real' games begin. We should know a lot more about this group by the time January 2nd rolls around.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org