VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Canucks are about where Willie Desjardins expected them to be 40 games into his first season as an NHL head coach.
How they got to this point is another matter entirely.
"We started quicker than I thought we would — but then we've had some tough games lately," Desjardins said after Monday's practice at Rogers Arena. "I think we're probably where I thought, but I thought it would kind of be reversed. I thought we'd go out a little bit slower and then be trending upwards. Now we've kind of flattened off again."
The Canucks briefly led the NHL standings with a 16-6-1 mark back in late November, but are just 7-8-2 since, including back-to-back losses to the Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames that closed out a disappointing 2-3-0 homestand.
Vancouver (23-14-3) sat second in the Pacific Division heading into Monday's action, but were just two points up on Calgary for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, albeit with three games in hand.
"I think we realize how close it is to miss the playoffs," said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "We've done a good job of staying in moment and taking care of the points, especially in the middle half, the dog days of the season.
"We make sure we're up for these games because we know how important the points are."
The Canucks will have to be up for Tuesday's opener of a five-game road trip against the league-leading Nashville Predators, who have just three losses on home ice this season.
"We've got real tough games," said Desjardins. "It's going to be a battle. Every point's going to be a battle (but) hopefully teams are saying the same things about us."
Speaking of battle, Desjardins was asked Monday before the Canucks left for Nashville what he wants more of in the second half of the season, and that was what came to mind for a team that didn't get a single power play against in the loss to Calgary.
"If you're battling hard then other teams get frustrated (and) when they get frustrated they take penalties," he said. "We're pushing them, but we're not pushing them to the point where they get frustrated and (are) taking penalties on us. We have to get to that point."
The good news for the Canucks as they prepared to meet the Predators is that Vancouver has played much better away from home this season, sporting a 12-6-2 mark with victories in Pittsburgh, Washington and St. Louis.
Desjardins was at a loss to explain discrepancy with the Canucks' 11-8-1 home record, but offered a few ideas.
"Maybe it's a factor that the guys are a little more focused (on the road)," he said. "Maybe they think on the road it's going to be a real tough game and so they are really prepared, and maybe we relax a little bit at home, I don't know. There's a couple games at home that it wouldn't have taken much (more effort) to get wins.
"You always wish you had a little bit more in those games."
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin couldn't explain the road success either, adding the team tries to approach each game the same.
"I think we try to keep it simple," he said. "It's not a big difference that way. I don't know why our home record isn't as good as on the road. We've gone into some tough buildings and we've shown before this year that we can win in those buildings."
Lack of scoring was a consistent theme last season when Vancouver missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. The Canucks scored just once in the losses to Florida (3-1) and Calgary (1-0) despite directing a combined 69 shots on target — they had 77 shots attempts against the Flames — but Desjardins suggested more can be done to make life difficult on the opposition.
"We've got to be harder," he said. "Overall we do need more. I don't think we're creating as much as we need to. We have to get better and we have to create more."
Sedin agreed the Canucks have to do a better job getting to the dirty areas of the ice on a road trip that will also take them to Philadelphia, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.
"We're not driving to the net," he said. "We're not getting people there, and that's usually when (referees) are calling the penalties — when they take away a scoring chance. It's something we keep talking about, but we've got to do it in games."
Teams across the league are in an almost constant search for consistency and the Canucks are no different as they approach the midway point of this campaign.
But Sedin said if someone had told him back in training camp that Vancouver would have 49 points through 40 games, he would have taken it.
"I think if you ask anyone, it's a good spot to be in for us," he said. "We've got a lot of games in hand on a lot of different teams. But we know we need to win games. It's going to be tough all the way down to the final game, but it's a great spot to be in. It's fun to be a part of.
"We're happy, but we're not satisfied."
Notes: Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis (torn groin), who has been out since getting hurt on Nov. 20, continues to practice with his teammates and hopes to play at some point on the road trip. ... Vancouver goalie Ryan Miller missed Saturday's game against Calgary with an illness, but said he expects to play Tuesday in Nashville if called upon.
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