VANCOUVER, B.C. — After losing their first two games of the season, the young Vancouver Canucks have been absolutely torrid. They have since gone 9-1-2, with one of those victories a 4-3 shootout triumph in St. Louis on Oct. 17.
So who would’ve thunk it? Tuesday’s Canucks-Blues game at Rogers Arena is a matchup between two of the top teams in the Western Conference. Vancouver (9-3-2) is second only to Edmonton in the Pacific Division.
The Blues (9-3-3) lead the Central Division, which was news to captain Alex Pietrangelo.
“That I did not know,” Pietrangelo said.
Yep, first in the Central, just ahead of Nashville and three up on Colorado.
“That’s good,” Pietrangelo said. “We’re first right now and we feel like we can play a lot better. So we’re finding ways to win and you feel like you’ve got a lot to build on. That’s a good sign moving forward.”
When you’ve got a veteran-laden team that’s coming off a Stanley Cup victory, why obsess over the standings in early November? But the Canucks are living in a different world. In their 50th NHL season, they’ve never won a Cup. (Sound familiar?)
But they’ve been to the finals three times, most recently the 2010-11 season against Boston. Since then, they’ve missed the playoffs in five of eight seasons, including the last four. And in their last three playoff seasons, they haven’t gotten out of the first round — losing 12 of 15 games overall.
Now comes this season. They’re young, they’re talented and they’re hungry. Plus they are eager to see for the second time in 2½ weeks how they measure up to the defending champs.
“They have some real talented, good young players,” Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. “But I think they’ve a good mix of guys. They brought in some older experienced guys that I think have really helped them.
“It’s one of these teams where they put those kids in a position to do what they do and give ‘em a chance to play, and they’ve really played well. They’ve kinda turned their team around pretty quick.”
Falling into the “young” category would be last season’s rookie of the year Elias Pettersson, who is a week shy of his 21st birthday and among the NHL’s leading scorers this season. Brock Boeser, 22, has a team-high seven goals this season and has scored a combined 55 goals over his prior two NHL seasons.
Bo Horvat, 24, has six goals, including his first NHL hat trick on Oct. 22 —against Detroit.
“They’re fast,” Bouwmeester said. “They like to kind of play in transition, that sort of thing. Same old story for us. We gotta kind of get through that and make ‘em play where it’s not much fun in their own end.”
Among the veterans added in the offseason are forwards J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland, and defenseman Tyler Myers.
“I don’t think we’re too surprised (at Vancouver’s success),” Robert Thomas said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a shock they’re doing well at the start. They’ve got some good players over there.”
Granted, we’re only about one-sixth of the way through the season, but all the leading indicators show a well-balanced team.
“They’re playing good hockey,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Their special teams are top 10, maybe in the top 5 — both of them. That’s a big thing. Their goalies are playing well, and they’re scoring goals.”
That just about encompasses everything. The Canucks are third in the NHL in scoring (3.64 goals per game), tied for fourth in defense (2.35 goals allowed), ninth on the power play (23.3 percent) and third in penalty killing (88.2 percent).
If that isn’t enough, they’re second in the league in faceoff success (54.6 percent).
At least to this point in the season, they’re no fluke. In a league of tight games, overtimes and shootouts, the Canucks were tied for best goal differential (plus-19) entering Monday’s games.
“They’ve obviously found something that’s been working,” Bouwmeester said. “A lot of these teams that people say they’re surprised at how they’re doing, when you sit back and you look at their lineup and their team, there’s not too many teams that come as a surprise.”
The shootout victory against the Blues last month in St. Louis had to be a huge confidence boost for the Canucks. The Blues controlled the first 1½ periods of play, taking a 3-1 lead in the second period on goals by Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko that came just 47 seconds apart.
The Canucks were on the ropes but rebounded. In the third period, a dubious goalie interference call on Robert Thomas was compounded by a bench minor against Berube for complaining too vehemently with referee Pierre Lambert about the call on Thomas.
Vancouver took advantage of the ensuing five-on-three power play to tie the game 3-3 on a goal by Horvat, then left St. Louis with two points and a shootout win.
“We found a way to lose that game,” the Blues’ Vince Dunn said. “We were playing pretty well at the start and then we kind of let off the gas and got into penalty trouble.
“Obviously the five-on-three, they took advantage of it. I mean, it was a close game right to the end. It was a shootout loss, so it’s not the worst game to remember.”
For the Canucks, it was a game to relish knowing they took the best shots from the Cup champions and survived. On the road.
“Any time you’re winning games, everything feels a little easier,” Bouwmeester said.
And at the moment the Canucks, of all teams, have that feeling.