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Long playoff run is no excuse for Vancouver

by Kevin Woodley
The Vancouver Canucks don't want to hear about Stanley Cup hangovers.

For starters, they never got the Stanley Cup to celebrate with. But mostly they just aren't interested in making excuses for a 9-9-1 record that is well below everyone's expectations -- from both the outside and internally within the organization.

No matter how many times they're asked about it.

"No, you're not going to get me," defenseman Kevin Bieksa said with a smile after a reporter's third attempt to tie this year's sluggish start to last year's long playoff run and disappointing finish. "I don't even remember the playoffs last year. Nobody remembers. There are no more excuses like that. We're well into our schedule right now. We're thinking about this year, and that's not even on our minds right now."

Those minds, however, seem incapable of focusing for an entire 60-minute game, which is the biggest reason the Canucks continue to tread water as their season approaches the quarter pole Sunday against Ottawa. They are outside the playoff bar and on pace for just 82 points, nowhere near good enough for a roster largely unchanged from the one that led the league in just about every significant statistic before failing to win Game 7 of the Cup Final against Boston.


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"We're not close to playing the way we can," head coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Saturday afternoon. "It's not a secret: We're looking for better consistency, a little more focus from shift to shift, and as a group we're all very aware of it."

Vigneault said this week his team is just "five percent" off, and those "six or seven shifts" are costing them each game. Sometimes the mistakes are mental, other times simply a matter of being outworked and losing battles along the boards or races for loose pucks. The coach bag skated his team at the end of a Thursday practice filled with 1-on-1 battle drills, but contended afterwards that the "work day" was planned well in advance with three days between games and a day off in the middle.

The groan-inducing practice had nothing to do with a 5-1 loss to archrival Chicago the night before, insisted Vigneault, but that doesn't mean the coach is satisfied.

"You need consistent effort and consistent execution and focus every shift," he said.

Especially while wearing the target that comes with playing for the Cup.

"Right now it seems like everyone is gunning for us, no one is going to lay down against us," said backup goalie Cory Schneider, who will start his second straight game Sunday while Roberto Luongo rests an undisclosed upper body injury. (Luongo practiced Saturday, but the Canucks called up Matt Climie from the AHL to back up.) "We play a great game and then we come out and play a 50-minute game."

Daniel Sedin said the early struggles are more frustrating because the Canucks know how good they can be from last year, and have been even during stretches this season. The problem is thinking they can turn it on whenever they want. It's something Chicago went through last year after winning the Cup in 2010, always thinking they'd have enough time to catch up, only to need help to get into the playoffs on the final day of the season.

"That's what we have to guard against; .500 is not good enough for this team," said Sedin, adding there are similar feelings to last season, when the Canucks used a 7-1 blowout loss to Chicago in late November to spark an incredible 18-1-3 streak through mid-January, ending memories of a similarly slow start to the season.

"We're playing good some games and not giving our best effort others," Bieksa said. "We're not going to sit in our stalls and whine, we're going to keep plugging away."

It starts in their own end, and includes the goaltenders, who have a combined .899 save percentage. Most of the lapses are occurring in the defensive zone, or on plays that result in odd-man rushes heading in that direction, an uncharacteristic trend for a team that often dominated defensively last season. Only three teams in the west have given up more goals than the Canucks' 55, and they aren't generating enough 5-on-5 the other way to make up for those breakdowns.

Vancouver leads the league on the power play but its 32 full-strength goals are middle of the pack, and well off last season's pace.

Players like Ryan Kesler (one even strength point) are struggling to find their form after offseason hip surgery and the shortest summer in franchise history. Kesler, who returned to practice Saturday after missing Thursday's following a nasty collision with the end boards, expects to play Sunday, while Andrew Alberts will draw back in on defense with Keith Ballard nursing back spasms after another collision in Wednesday's loss.

"Over the past three games my game keeps getting better and that's a positive sign," Kesler said. "It's a process and we're trying to string some games together."

For now, they'd settle for one game -- as long as it's the entire one.
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