By Josh Plummer
Heading into the holidays, the Canucks were starting hockey games like old curmudgeons who fall out of bed, step on the cat, and then stumble to the kitchen only to find the coffee tin empty.
They gave up five first-period goals during their three game pre-Christmas skid and fell behind by two goals in each of those games.
They must have wished they could crawl back into bed and start all over again.
"I think before the Christmas break it was really a nemesis of ours - we got ourselves into penalty trouble early and being down one or two goals is tough to come back from," said Matt Cooke. "When you're in a hole, you've got to change your mindset, you've got to change your game plan and we don't really want to do that."
But things are different now.
Vancouver's been like waking up to the smells of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon. Since Christmas, they've outscored opponents 6-0 in first periods.
"Our starts have been problematic for us in the past month or so, but they've really been the keys to our success lately," said Brendan Morrison.
"Since the holiday break we've been taking early leads and not having to dig ourselves out of holes to come back in the second and third. It's always easier when you can play this game from out front."
Early leads mean the Canucks have been able to employ their stifling defence, and as always, lean on all-star Roberto Luongo
It's been the plan all along.
"We look for Roberto to be the guy and he's big in the net and he wants that responsibility, he wants that role and we have no trouble giving it to him," said Cooke.
"Obviously with the style of game that we play, he shouldn't have to make 50 saves every night, but there are going to be nights when we need that from him and he's prepared to do that."
Luongo played arguably his best game as a Canuck versus the Dallas Stars last Wednesday, stopping 39 shots and holding five Stars shooters off the scoresheet in the overtime shoot-out. With his help, the Canucks handed the Stars just their second shoot-out loss in their club's history.
The previous night in Calgary he was just as impressive. He stole the game-tying goal off Byron Ritchie's stick in the third with a glove save on a 2-on-1 rush that was downright telekinetic to earn Vancouver's third win over their division rivals in just over a week.
"He's really stepped it up when we needed him to," said Josh Green. "Before the Christmas break we were always putting ourselves behind the eight ball with our starts, but lately we've been playing better and Roberto has been huge. He's been making big saves at key moments of the game. He's the best player on our team and he's proving it right now."
Along with the strong starts and gifted goaltending, Vancouver appears to have finally bumped a goal-scoring slump that's been about as easy to figure as the plot of David Lynch movie.
"Throughout the season our guys have worked very hard and that's been our number one identity," said coach Alain Vigneault.
"We've stuck with the process even though we were having a tough time scoring goals. I think the two areas we've improved on lately are our starts and I think we're getting the same amount of chances with the same amount of traffic, but for some reason now we're scoring more goals."
The Canucks have out-scored their opponents 22-13 since Christmas, including two back to back six goal performances versus Calgary and Edmonton, and the forwards have accounted for 17 of the 22 goals.
They've played nearly flawless hockey in their recent stretch of games versus Conference rivals - a run that will undoubtedly hold post-season implications.
And according to Cooke, there's no end in sight to this new beginning.
"I think our starts have been huge and they come from being prepared, being focused and really going out there and executing our game plan."
"It's a credit to the guys in this room that we've been able to come out and accomplish what we want early. It's something we'll continue to do for the rest of year."