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Canucks quietly becoming West's best as Stars fade

by Jeremy Roenick
NHL analyst and former All-Star Jeremy Roenick pens a weekly blog for "World According to JR" appears every Wednesday and includes Roenick's sharp, can't-miss opinions on What's Clicking and What's Missing in the National Hockey League.

Last week I made some points on teams in the Eastern Conference, specifically the Buffalo Sabres and the Winnipeg Jets. This week, with the races still white-hot, I'm moving back out west to focus on two teams going in completely opposite directions with the end of the regular season only four days away:

What's clicking?

The Vancouver Canucks are the one team that everybody has not been watching or paying attention to. Especially in the U.S., with the Rangers, Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Sabres, the Capitals, the Kings and everybody in the Pacific Division, it seems like no one has noticed that the Vancouver Canucks have won seven in a row and quietly have found themselves right near the top of the National Hockey League again.

It doesn't surprise me. This team has been remolded, readjusted. They have built a tougher team, and that was one of the knocks against Vancouver last season. People were saying the Canucks weren't tough enough in the playoffs, especially in the Stanley Cup Final, when they got pushed around by the Bruins.

Cory Schneider
Goalie - VAN
RECORD: 20-7-1
GAA: 1.93 | SVP: 0.938
This season they're tougher physically, tougher mentally, and they're a better all-round team despite the fact that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are below their average in production for a season.

The big positive for the Canucks has been the emergence of backup goalie Cory Schneider. He really has put the pressure on Roberto Luongo to perform at a higher rate.

Schneider is one of the best young goalies in the NHL and will be a starter if not next season, then very soon. He has done everything a backup goaltender is supposed to do.

He's won four in a row, allowing less than one goal per game with a save percentage of .972. He has Luongo looking over his shoulder and everyone questioning whether Luongo should or will be in net for the playoffs.

A friendly rivalry like that is great for goaltenders. You see what it has done in St. Louis with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Look at how well that team has done with their goals-against.

It may sound absurd, but I'm calling the Canucks a sleeper in the Western Conference even though they are right at the top because nobody has been talking about them. That is always a dangerous situation. The Canucks could quietly get up there, pounce, kick some teams in the butt and find themselves right back in the Stanley Cup Final.

It wouldn't shock me at all.

What's missing?

I hate to say it, because he was one of their best players, but it appears that Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen has hit the skids and so has his team.

Lehtonen has looked tired lately. He certainly isn't moving the way he had been for the previous couple of months. And when your goaltender gets tired, it's very difficult for a team to maintain a high level of play, especially when the teams you're playing also are in playoff mode.

Kari Lehtonen
Goalie - DAL
RECORD: 32-21-4
GAA: 2.34 | SVP: 0.922
I give Lehtonen a huge amount of respect for the level he's played at for most of the season, but unfortunately when you come down to the nitty-gritty, when the races are going on and you're playing as much as Lehtonen has lately, and you get as much action as he gets, something is going to give.

The Stars are letting in too many goals and they haven't found a way to put the puck in the back of the net. Loui Eriksson, the Stars' leading scorer, has only three goals in his last 13 games and none in the past seven.

It's no surprise the Stars have lost three in a row at the most crucial time of the season.

The Stars had a fantastic run, especially from late February to the middle of March, when they went 10-0-1 in a span of 11 games, but nobody expected them to make the playoffs earlier in the season and now it looks like those predictions are going to come true.

It's simple math, really. When you're battling for those final precious few playoff spots with three or four teams, you can't afford to lose three games in a row. The parity is too great right now, teams are nipping at your heals every single day, every single game. With as many points that are being distributed because of the system there are too many teams in the run for the playoffs that you can't afford to lose three straight.

I feel bad for the Stars. I feel bad for Jamie Benn and Brenden Morrow. But, it looks like they're going to have to get ready to play some golf.
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