The adversarial fire wasn't as palpable as the last time the Canucks played a Saturday matinee, beating the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins two weeks ago, but Vancouver once again delivered on the weekend in an afternoon game against a key rival.
Tied 2-2 against the San Jose Sharks with about five minutes to go, there was a flurry of three goals in 92 seconds, and the Canucks came out ahead. Buoyed by rookie Cody Hodgson's two goals – his first to tie it at two and then a lucky squeaker of a game winner – the Canucks edged the Sharks 4-3 on Saturday afternoon in Vancouver. It was the Canucks' third win against the Sharks in the four meetings scheduled this season between last spring's Western Conference finalists.
But unlike last season, when Vancouver ran away with the Presidents' Trophy by 10 points, this year the Canucks are seventh on a points percentage basis, behind the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. The Canucks are just 5-5 against the teams ahead of them in the standings.
To San Jose coach Todd McLellan, the Canucks are much like the team that dispatched the Sharks 4-1 in the Stanley Cup semi-finals last May.
"They play the same game," McLellan said Saturday. "They have a system, a belief system, that they follow, everybody buys into it, and [goaltender Roberto Luongo]is giving them some good games."
Vancouver clearly was up for Boston on the road earlier in January, but appeared only half-concerned with subsequent games through Florida. Returning home, the Canucks lost a stinker against Anaheim, and in a shootout to the Los Angeles Kings.
"It seems like there's more and more teams that are in that group of excellent teams," centre Ryan Kesler said Saturday. "St. Louis is emerging. You can probably name 12 teams in our conference that are really, really solid opponents. And the other three are solid as well."
Consider this measure: The Canucks, with their win Saturday, pull only two points ahead of the Ottawa Senators, who in preseason predictions were widely marked as a cellar dweller.
Against San Jose, Vancouver was strong from the start. The Canucks outshot the Sharks 12-5 in the first period, taking a 1-0 lead, and overall outshot San Jose 30-26.
Even so, the Canucks aren't quite as dominant as they were last year. Luongo is strong but his numbers are about average for his tenure as a Canuck, which means they are more than solid but he's not the Vézina nominee he was last season. And when Vancouver plays a team like L.A., the goalie at the other end, first-time all-star Jonathan Quick, is imposing, never mind the wall-like netminders in Boston, New York or Detroit.
Scoring is the same: great but not as great. Vancouver's power play is No. 1 again, but is one or two notches less amazing. The Canucks average 3.19 goals a game, better than the 3.15 last year that ranked No. 1. But now 3.19 puts them fourth, behind Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
On Saturday, Luongo won his 212th game as a Canuck, topping Kirk McLean's franchise record wins for a goalie. McLean's tally was set over 11 seasons – 1987 through 1998 – whereas Luongo is in his sixth season in Vancouver. It reflects two eras of Canucks hockey. In Luongo's time, the team has been a constant contender, and improved year by year.
"It's a great honour," Luongo told reporters after Saturday's game. "We've had a great team here since I've been here."
How great is a question to be decided when the snow melts and spring blooms.