This was a strange season to be a Canucks fan.
Last season was as easy as cheering for the Oilers in the '80s. The good players played like stars, the stars played like All Stars, Luongo was a Vezina finalist, Manny Malhotra was a faceoff God and Ryan Kesler apparently made a pact with the devil. The Canucks led the league in almost every stat that mattered, and it seemed like half the players on the team were up for awards or All-Star spots. Flip the score in game seven of the finals, and it was as dominating a year as any hockey team has seen in the history of the NHL.
This year the Sedins who had rarely played back-to-back stinkers ran into an honest-to-Gretzky slump. Kesler never looked like he fully recovered from his surgery. Manny can't see the faceoff circle anymore. And every time Luongo appeared to have regained Vezina form, he had a game where the fans were praying for him to be pulled.
The most exciting player on the team wasn't Kesler or Alex Burrows or even Mason Raymond -- but Cody Hodgson, the rookie who went to the Sabres at the trade deadline. The only player who consistently looked like a bonafide superstar was the back-up goalie, Cory Schneider.
The Canucks kept racking up wins, but they weren't flashy, fun, wins. They were ugly, nail-biting, old-time New Jersey Devils one goal, frequently in extra time with a "lucky bounce" wins.
Meanwhile, a player survey declared the Canucks "the most overrated team in the NHL." Although as I look at playoff predictions that seem to be universally declaring an eastern conference Cup winner -- naming Nashville, Phoenix and Chicago as the likely western contenders -- I'm not quite sure who is overrating them. Certainly not Canucks fans who spent the year in the kind of crazed glassy-eyed funk usually reserved for Maple Leafs diehards.
Six weeks ago the Canucks were skidding so quickly some fans were calling for coach Alain Vigneault -- the most successful coach in the team's history -- to be run out of town and replaced by...the ghost of Scotty Bowman.
Then, with less than a month left in the season, disaster struck. Actually, it was more like an elbow belonging to Duncan Keith. Daniel Sedin, the team's leading scorer and MVP candidate, went down like a sack of Swedish meatballs and the Canucks were doomed, the season was over, the President's Trophy was toast, the Stanley Cup dream was dead. We'd played this scene before in Vancouver -- the season Marcus Naslund went down with a concussion when he was leading the scoring race; the year Bure blew out his leg, and the Russian Rocket could no longer liftoff; and any year Mark Messier wore the C (because he was apparently still playing for the Rangers...)
And that's when we finally saw what made this season's Canucks different from last season's Canucks. The individual players still aren't playing at the superhuman level they were last year, but the team found an all-new gear. Daniel Sedin wasn't there to score the big goals so Chris Higgins, David Booth and Sammy Pahlsson did.
In the nine games since Daniel started seeing stars (of the non-Dallas variety), the Canucks lost exactly one and that's when it became clear: Last season the players were better, but this season the team is better.
Reading the playoff predictions, the big question mark around the Canucks is whether Luongo will bring his A-game, or his meh-game. I'm not quite sure why that's a cause for panic because if Lu doesn't deliver lights out goaltending, Schneider will -- and he does have Vezina stats for the 33 games he played this season. And the last time I checked the rulebook teams were allowed to have more than one goalie.
During the 2011 playoff run there were times the media was making a case for Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Kesler, both Sedins and Luongo for the Conn Smythe. If the Canucks play the same type of game during the playoffs that they did during the season, there may not be anyone on the team who's even a great hockey pool pick, nevermind a favourite for the Conn Smythe -- there could be eight or nine defensemen rotating through the lineup, Higgins may score as many goals as the Sedins, and there will likely be two goalies sharing the ice time -- and I doubt any of the players will care when they're kissing the Cup.
Yes, this was a strange season to be a Canucks fan -- and I think it's going to be the best post-season ever.