A year ago, after a tremendous run of victories, the Vancouver Canucks were first place in the NHL.
Wednesday night, at home, a win against division rivals Minnesota Wild can extend a strong run, and put the team in the same lofty No. 1 spot (though it must be noted that Vancouver reaches the halfway point of the long NHL regular season several games earlier than the likes of the Boston Bruins).
At Rogers Arena on Wednesday morning, after a morning practice of offensive drills, no one wanted to talk about the team in yellow and black, who the Canucks visit on Saturday for a showdown (1 p.m. ET), returning to the arena where the team was disemboweled three times last June.
The team's focus on Wednesday was squarely on the Wild, who led the Northwest Division for a while before the Canucks finally eclipsed injury-depleted Minnesota. The Wild were beaten up 4-0 in Vancouver on Dec. 19 but played without five regular forwards. On this visit key stars such as centre Mikko Koivu, the Wild's leading scorer, are in action.
Roberto Luongo makes the start for Vancouver, his 700th NHL game (324-277-33, 2.52 GAA, 0.919 save percentage).
"The big guys in front, we've got to make sure we play them hard, don't give those guys time and space to make plays," Luongo said in the dressing room after the Wednesday skate.
"We've got to wait for mistakes, they're a very patient team, they don't give up much. It's going to be one of those games, where we've got to generate some turnovers and generate offence off that."
In the past 10 games, Vancouver is 6-3-1 whereas Minnesota is 1-6-3, though the likes of Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said the recent record makes the Wild look weaker than they actually are.
Captain Henrik Sedin is poised for a tight match.
"We know their game plan: it's about turning over pucks. If you let them do that, they're going to hurt us," said Sedin.
A year ago, the Canucks stood in first, and they were first on the power play, fourth in penalty killing, second in scoring, and fourth on defence.
Twelve months later, it's close to the same, even with a "different" team, in the words of Daniel Sedin, given there are new faces on offence and defence. This season: first on the power play, seventh on the penalty kill, fourth in goals per game, eighth in goals against per game.
At the halfway mark – never mind four potential playoff rounds – Vigneault took his usual much-work-to-be-done stance.
"We're at the same point we are every year after 40-some odd games," the coach said. "We're a work in progress, we're trying to improve our game."
As for a certain Stanley Cup champion, on whom Vancouver was up 2-0 and 3-2 last June, Vigneault was mum. Saturday afternoon happens Saturday afternoon.
"I'm not even thinking about Boston. The only reason I know we're playing Boston is because a few of you guys [curious journalists]are reminding me. Total focus is on Minnesota and what we have to do tonight."