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Positive thinking powering Canucks

Confidence-building comebacks, tighter defense has 4-0-0 Vancouver on cusp of best start in its history

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks were picked by many to finish last in the NHL this season, but four games into it, they are the League's only unbeaten team.

Buoyed by an unlikely start when they became the first NHL team to win their first three games without leading in any of them, the Canucks showed they can play with a lead during a 2-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, tying their best start of 4-0-0, set in 1992-93.

The Canucks can start 5-0-0 with a victory at the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; CBC, FS-W, NHL.TV).

A preseason simulation from EA Sports projected Vancouver to finish with 63 points, two fewer than USA Today predicted, but the Canucks aren't ready to say "we told you so" to any doubters.

"Where we are going to get into trouble is if we start slacking a little, not playing to our system," forward Jannik Hansen said. "Then we are going to have a hard time if we are going to rely on individual performances. This team isn't deep enough for that."

Tied for 26th in goals per game (2.25) going into Friday, the Canucks already have three third-period comebacks, matching their total from last season (3-30-1) in their first week. Setting NHL records has created a confidence in a group that desperately needed it after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in three seasons and finishing 28th in the NHL last season.

"Just coming back in games, that was huge early," forward Daniel Sedin said. "Those first two, three games where we came back from behind, that's when you realize you can play your system. Keep playing your system, even when you're down 3-0, it's going to pay off. That's calmed everyone down and made everyone really believe we can do it."

Video: BUF@VAN: Hansen crashes the net for 100th career goal

Perhaps the bigger surprise surrounding the start is how they've done it, or more to the point, what they've done it without. Free agent addition Loui Eriksson, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract July 1 after scoring 30 goals with the Boston Bruins, hasn't clicked on the top line with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin.  

Eriksson hasn't scored a goal in part because of a top power-play unit that failed on its first 11 chances until scoring in the third period against the Sabres.

"I expected at the start [the key] would be good goaltending and to score on the power play," coach Willie Desjardins said. "That's kind of the way I foresaw the year." 

The Sedins were expected to carry the offense, but with the exception of a brilliant two-minute shift that led to the tying goal against the Calgary Flames on Saturday, they have struggled 5-on-5 and been split up at times.

"They haven't seemed to get on a roll yet," Desjardins said. "Last year they carried us the first half. They carried us, and they are still a good line and they will find a way."

The biggest difference in the turnaround has come defensively. The Canucks credit improved structure, especially through the neutral zone, in a system tweaked by new assistant coach Doug Jarvis. Vancouver gave up 32.5 shots per game last season, second worst in the NHL, but were tied for third at 24.5 shots against before games Friday. 

"We've been really harping on the defensive side, and it's all five guys," defenseman Ben Hutton said. "It's five up, five back. We've been working on the forwards tracking back hard and the defense picking up the right guys and talking to the forwards."

Simpler reads by younger players accounts for part of it, but Daniel Sedin said it's also a mindset to stick with the slightly altered system, because the overall focus has changed. 

"This year it's not about developing players," Sedin said. "We are playing to win. Every situation is important. Putting guys out there in offensive faceoffs, defensive faceoffs, everything. There is a lot more coaching and it's about winning this year, it's not about maybe developing the young guys, like it was last season."

Whether that's enough to get back to the playoffs remains to be seen. Even after a perfect start, it won't be easy.

"We got a little bit of confidence out of it, but now we're going to have to play hard every night," Desjardins said. "Right now I just look at us as a team that has to battle every night to get a win."

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