"It's the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen." - Muhammad Ali.
For the Vancouver Canucks, in their 40th year in the league, there are only four words: "We. Want. The. Cup."
<img src="http://vancouverite.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/kesler.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Some wins will come easier than others, but make no mistake, the Canucks are the team to beat in the West. For Cup contenders facing the Canucks, it is a chance to familiarize themselves with a potential enemy in June. For teams looking to re-build, it provides a golden opportunity for young players to play against the league's best. Unlike Colorado or Phoenix last year, the Canucks aren't going to surprise anyone. Henrik Sedin is the reigning league MVP and twin brother Daniel is just as good. Ryan Kesler will see plenty of Selke Trophies on his shelf before his career is over and Roberto Luongo can always show off his Olympic gold when people question his ability to win big games. But let's not get carried away - there are 82 grueling regular season games to be played and three Western Conference teams that the Canucks must show they can beat before they become the last team standing.
The San Jose Sharks have been the West's best team for the past two years but like the Canucks during the West Coast Express' heyday, they still can't win the big game. In the five years since the lockout, all the Sharks have done is win the Pacific Division three times, eclipsed the 100-point mark four times, and claimed the President's Trophy once. But the Sharks always seem to lose their bite when the games start to really count, bowing out from the semis in three straight years and an even more abysmal showing two years ago after being ousted in the opening round by the Ducks. It was only last year did the Sharks manage to parlay their regular season success into the playoffs and reached the Conference Finals, even if only to be swept by the eventual Cup-winning Blackhawks. While becoming one of the four teams remaining is certainly quite the accomplishment, to say the Sharks were satisfied would be an understatement. The Sharks' first ever Conference Final appearance may be short, but now this team knows how to get there. Even with losing captain Rob Blake to retirement and swapping Evgeni Nabokov for a cheaper tandem in Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi, this is a team that has finally learned how to win and that's a dangerous thought.
What's more dangerous than a team that knows it can win is a team that has already won and for the Detroit Red Wings they have something that no other Cup contender has: a wealth of experience. Since the lockout, the Wings have averaged 113 points a year, dipped below 50 wins just once (last year with a depleted roster), and been to the Finals twice. Nicklas Lidstrom has 247 games of playoff experience under his belt, over 100 more than Daniel and Henrik combined. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are no strangers either, Datsyuk having two Cup rings and Zetterberg a former Conn Smythe winner. Even the Red Wings' newest addition, Mike Modano, brings plenty of experience with a Cup ring of his own and over 150 games of playoff experience. Detroit is my pick to win the Cup (but I'd love to be proven wrong) and any road to the Finals will have to go through them. And the last time the Canucks met the Wings in the playoffs? 2002, when the Canucks were eliminated in the opening round after blowing a 2-0 lead in a series that is now only remembered by this goal.
As the saying goes, "three time's the charm," but as the Canucks strive for their third straight division title you can bet that a third consecutive 4-2 semi-finals loss to Chicago won't be happening again. The Canucks simply won't allow it and a weaker Blackhawks squad would be hard-pressed to deal out the same punishment a third time. Make no mistake, the Canucks would love to see the Blackhawks in the semis again, if only just to show that the two previous playoff meetings were merely flukes. Still, the Blackhawks do have the Canucks' number and are the defending Cup champions. Even with less depth don't be surprised if Jonathan Toews wills this team deep into the playoffs. No other team in the West can deal as much psychological damage to the Canucks as the Blackhawks and as any NHL player will tell you, the playoffs are mentally taxing as they are physically.
<img src="http://www.showtimetickets.com/hockey-tickets/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Roberto-Luongo-photos.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">All three teams are tough opponents but nothing the Canucks cannot handle. The truth is, the Canucks' toughest opponent is themselves. Since the 2000-2001 season, the Canucks have made the playoffs seven times but have lost in the semis four times and the quarters three times. During that same span the Canucks have been division champions four times but were upset in opening round by Calgary in 2004 and lost 4-1 to the Ducks in 2007 in the semis after escaping Anaheim with a 1-1 record. Then it was losses to Chicago in consecutive years in the semis in which the Canucks allowed an uncharacteristic 12 goals combined in elimination games. Despite his 112-point regular season performance Henrik Sedin was not a major force in the playoffs and neither was twin brother Daniel and both disappeared for stretches. Kesler had just one goal while Mason Raymond capped off what would've been a great season with just 4 points in 12 playoff games. Roberto Luongo had the worst playoff run of his career and his save percentage dropped from .913 to .895 which led to a subsequent ballooning of his GAA from 2.57 to 3.22. Cup-winning teams should not and do not self-destruct.
If the Canucks want to win they just simply have to stop shooting themselves in the foot.