By Jeff Paterson
The comparison has been made many times throughout this season - that this year's Vancouver Canucks team bears a strong resemblance to the Calgary Flames squad that came within a win of capturing the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2004.
The Flames rode remarkable goaltending and a strong defensive system and squeezed out just enough offence to win the games they had to three years ago. And while the Flames very quickly became the story of those '04 playoffs, their road to success was actually paved in the two months leading up to the post-season.
And if the Canucks want to emulate the Flames' success of that year, they'd be wise to approach the run-up to the playoffs the way that Calgary team did as well. With 28 games left in the 2003-04 season, the Flames coaching staff asked the players to break the remaining games on their schedule into four separate seven game series and challenged the team to 'win' each of the series by winning at least four of the seven games in each segment.
It put the team in a playoff frame of mind and set the standards by which the Flames would be forced to play when the games that mattered rolled around. It also injected a few short term goals to take the pressure off the bigger picture. Well, not only did the Flames do what they set out to over those final 28 regular season games, they won four of seven games in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs -- and very nearly got that fourth one against Tampa Bay, too.
It was a simple 'game within the game' and it artificially created the playoff atmosphere ahead of the real thing while also manufacturing a sense of urgency to win hockey games down the stretch. Even though the standings and the race for top spot in the Northwest Division should be motivation enough, for whatever reason, the Canucks right now look like a team that still needs a kick in the butt on too many nights.
It was that way again on Thursday against Phoenix. While the Canucks scored the first goal and showed more early hustle than in the past few games, it wasn't the same hustle the team showed during their peak. They showed the ability to crank things up when they had to in the third period and ultimately won the game, but they made life tough on themselves yet again. If ever there was a hockey team that could use an 'easy night' at the office it's the Vancouver Canucks who've now played 18 straight games that have been tied or been a one-goal game at some point in the third period.
While it has the Canucks playing playoff style hockey on a nightly basis, you have to wonder about the fatigue factor - both physical, but perhaps even more importantly the mental wear and tear - of playing 18 tight hockey games over the past six weeks, likely 18 more before the regular season is done and then they're hoping to get the chance to play as many as 28 come playoff time.
The fact the Canucks have won far more than they've lost recently certainly makes what they're going through much easier to deal with. But at some point, this group has to catch its collective breath. That's why injecting a little fun in the form of the artificial playoffs comes in to help the Canucks get a sense of their readiness for what lies ahead.
If the Canucks take a page out of the Flames' playbook from three years ago, then they went 6-1 in the first of the seven-game series remaining on their schedule. Thursday's win over Phoenix leaves them with a 1-2 record in the second series with a huge game coming up on Sunday. It's hard to win playoff series when falling behind 3-1 and it'll be tough to win the division without knocking off the Minnesota Wild.
So no matter how you look at it - as game four of an imaginary series or game 65 of the regular season, it's a big one. And Sunday night can't get here soon enough.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org