The Vancouver Canucks have re-established themselves as a serious contender in the difficult Western Conference, recovering from a November skid with a soaring December, winning seven in a row, and, this past weekend, claiming their biggest victory of the season, a 6-2 rout of the Boston Bruins.
The Canucks, from general manager Mike Gillis on down, are a statistically minded bunch. No one relies on numbers as their sole guide, but the Canucks are among the NHL teams that invest money and thinking on stats to complement their strategies. (When John Tortorella was hired as head coach in late June, he claimed he wasn't much of a numbers guy, but was keen to learn more.)
In their difficult November, the Canucks could find consolation and confidence in both the numbers and what they saw on the ice. The scoreboard didn't look great. The Canucks played well, outshooting opponents, but couldn't score, and went 4-5-4 during the month. They fell back as far as four points of a playoff spot. Even though it was only late November, it wasn't a good place to be.
The team and coach remained confident, saying the goals would come, and the results, and worked on fixing mistakes such as giving up leads.
The Canucks won just a single game of six in their last home stand in November, going 1-2-3. This time, the Canucks were 4-0 and scored 15 goals, capped by the win against Boston.
The thing is, after the Boston win, Tortorella actually suggested the losing home stand featured better play from the Canucks than the one concluded last Saturday.
It is true the numbers show a number of efforts in November were superior to recent games. Hearing a head coach talk about it illustrates the fine line between wins and losses in a league of vast parity. Fabled puck luck is the fulcrum on which decisions can pivot. It's hard to quantify, but it's there.
"I said it right along, we were playing well," Tortorella said last Saturday. "And I'll say it again, we probably played better at that time than we are now. Pucks weren't going in."
The goals are now going in, at a rate this month – 3.4 per game – that would rank near the top of the league if stretched over the season. And the goals come on top of the almost-always-steady back end.
From the start of November, the Canucks have ceded more than two goals in regulation only three times in 20 games. Almost every night, goaltender Roberto Luongo, the defence and the fore-checking give Vancouver a chance to win – if the players can manage to score themselves.
Buoyed by the Boston win and the win streak, Tortorella noted Vancouver as "one of the best teams in the West" when talking of the matchup against the Bruins, No. 2 in the East.
It is obviously a biased view, but fair enough – the Canucks are again up close against the top teams, though still in fourth in the Pacific Division, which is led by the Anaheim Ducks. The Los Angeles Kings are second and San Jose Sharks third, one point ahead of Vancouver with two games in hand. The fight for one of those three guaranteed playoff spots will stay fierce until the last day.
Tortorella's confidence is in stark contrast to negative opinion in the depths of late November. Some chatterers were saying the Canucks would miss the playoffs, the theory being that in the West and the tight Pacific, the Canucks simply didn't have enough punch and would end up outside looking in.
It's possible, still – and simply shows how competitive the situation is with an aging team and after autopilot entries into the playoffs in Canucks old division, the Northwest.
The Canucks have re-established themselves as one of the real contenders but because of the so-so November the team has little margin for more losing stretches, absences of puck luck. The goals have to keep coming.