The Vancouver Canucks made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five consecutive seasons before missing in 2013-14.
But the remodeled Canucks, under first-year coach Willie Desjardins, are back in the playoffs after clinching a berth on Tuesday. The Canucks got off to a fast start and held a share of first place in the Pacific Division at the end of November. Although they cooled off, the cushion they built allowed them to overcome some key injuries and give them the inside track to a second-place finish and the home-ice advantage in the Western Conference First Round.
Here are five reasons the Canucks are back in the playoffs:
1. Henrik and Daniel
Center - VAN
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 51 | PTS: 69
SOG: 101 | +/-: 11
Any conversation about the success of the Canucks has to start with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin. The twins, who play on Vancouver's top line, have paced the offense for most of the past decade. This season has been no different.
The twins, who skate nearly every second together at even strength and on the power play, are first and second on the Canucks in scoring; Daniel is tops with 72 points, three more than Henrik. Each plays more than 18 minutes a night, the only two Canucks forwards to do so. Henrik is first and Daniel is second on the team in shot-attempts percentage, driving possession at a steady pace of 53.97 and 53.21 percent, respectively.
Their on-ice chemistry is as fluid as ever, making it incredibly difficult for opponents to win the puck when they're in control in the offensive zone. This allows Vancouver to sustain extended attacking shifts, making life easier for the Canucks' defensemen and goalies.
2. No Lack of goaltending
After trading Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers prior to the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, the Canucks signed Ryan Miller in the offseason to be their starting goalie. Miller put up good but not spectacular numbers in his first season in Vancouver, with a 28-15-1 record, a 2.47 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 44 starts. But Miller's knee injury in late February could have been a crushing blow to Vancouver's playoff hopes if not for the play of Eddie Lack.
Lack, who backed up Luongo before the trade last year and did the same for Miller, has stepped up and provided the Canucks with quality goaltending, enabling them to return to the playoffs. Miller returned to practice last Friday and hopes to be ready for the playoffs. But if he's not, the Canucks know that Lack is a more-than-adequate replacement.
3. Third fiddle
The Canucks needed someone to ride shotgun with the Sedins. Enter right wing Radim Vrbata, who spent the past five seasons with the Arizona Coyotes before signing as a free agent with Vancouver in the offseason.
Vrbata's ability to capitalize on the Sedins' puck-possession skills and passing made him an effective third member of the line. He eclipsed the 30-goal plateau for the second time in his career; of his team-high 31 goals, 12 were assisted by both Sedins and nine others were assisted by one or the other.
Vrbata has remained an effective scorer after a late-season move to the second line with Nick Bonino and Chris Higgins.
4. A clear message
The Canucks didn't make a major roster overhaul after missing the playoffs last season. Instead, they brought in a new general manager, Jim Benning, and hired Desjardins, who had never run an NHL team, as coach.
Though the Canucks are allowing 0.06 more goals per game than last season, their offense has improved dramatically; They are generating 2.81 goals per game, up from 2.33. The 0.48 year-to-year differential is the biggest jump by any team in the League this season.
The personnel moves the Canucks did make have paid off. In addition to signing Vrbata, the trade of center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks brought back Bonino and defenseman Lucas Sbisa. Each has made contributions. Benning was in charge when that deal was made, and Desjardins has come in and instilled confidence in a group that clearly had the potential to be a playoff team.
5. Bo-lieve that
Before the All-Star break, rookie forward Bo Horvat was averaging about 10 minutes of ice time per game and trying to find his role. Since the break, Horvat is playing more than 14 minutes per game and is showing why the Canucks made him the ninth pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Of Horvat's 23 points, 15 (10 goals, five assists) have come after the All-Star break. His improvement has allowed Desjardins to roll four lines and take some of the pressure (and minutes) off the Sedins and other top-six forwards.
Horvat spends most of his time with Jannik Hansen, and those two along with other bottom-six forwards have given Vancouver more depth up front and keyed the Canucks' return to the playoffs.