By Jeff Paterson
I'm no mathematician, I'm just a broadcaster who's been asked to contribute to Canucks.com, but I think I know enough about numbers to recognize that 5-4-1 isn't as good as 8-1-1. Or is it?
Certainly a case can be made that this year's Canucks with five wins in their first 10 games look better than the group that came firing out of the gates with eight wins and an overtime loss in its first 10 games last season. Oh, maybe they don't have the flair and panache that last year's team had, but they do seem to have many of the elements needed to win hockey games and, more importantly, playoff games.
If you recall, last year's team had a relatively soft schedule to start and barely eked out wins over teams like Chicago, Phoenix and Columbus. That group also showed signs of the same inconsistency and inability to compete for a full 60 minutes that would ultimately cost the Canucks a playoff spot. Last year's team won in spite of its early season flaws, but those weaknesses couldn't be covered for ever. And after that 8-1-1 start, last year's team wrestled with injuries and inconsistency and barely played .500 hockey going 34-31-7 the rest of the way.
In many ways, this year's crew, while struggling on some nights to put the puck in the net has already shown an ability to play hard, on the road, against good teams and in tough places like Detroit, Nashville and Dallas. And for all the concern about offence, the Canucks have scored enough (24 goals) to post a winning record through 10 games and they will have played more than a quarter of their road games by the end of next week. So despite the rigours of the early season travel, the 2006-07 Canucks find themselves on the right side of the playoff bar for the time being.
Recent history has shown that it's not the teams that start well that make noise when the post-season rolls around, it's the teams that use the first half of the season to find their games and then hit their strides after Christmas. Anaheim was that way in 2003, Calgary the same way in 2004 and most recently, look back at the Oilers a year ago.
While the Canucks were 8-1-1 at this point last season, the Oilers stumbled out of the starting blocks with a 3-6-1 record scoring 23 times in their first 10 outings. In that span, they lost seven straight (including one in a shootout) and there were calls throughout Northern Alberta for the heads of both Craig McTavish and Kevin Lowe.
The Flames of 2003-04 started the year with the same 5-4-1 record the Canucks have right now and they scored only 21 goals in their first 10 games. They fell to 6-8-2 through 16 games, before they started to find their groove.
The Mighty Ducks were 2-5-3 and had 24 goals in the first 10 outings of the 2002-03 season and weren't exactly setting the league on fire with a 15-16-6-4 record at the midway mark that year.
Of course, the common thread in all of this is that despite seemingly slow starts and offensive struggles, the Oilers, Flames and Ducks are the last three teams to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
The lesson here is that playoff spots are not gained in October, but the habits required to earn one of the invitations to the post-season party are ingrained at this early juncture. And through 10 games at least, the Canucks are playing hard and limiting scoring chances, they're making Roberto Luongo's life easier and he in turn has given his team a chance to win virtually every night so far. They won't win them all, but like the Oilers - and Flames and Ducks before them - the Canucks appear to have good goaltending and a commitment to each other and to strong team defence. And that's a strong base to build on - certainly better than the unstable ground that ultimately crumbled under the Canucks of a year ago. So, all things considered, maybe 5-4-1 is better than 8-1-1 after all.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org