Vancouver Canucks happy - not satisfied - with early-season success

VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Canucks are happy with where they sit just over a third of the way through the NHL schedule.

That doesn't mean they're satisfied.

Coming off a season-long seven-game road trip that saw Vancouver go 3-3-1, but finish on an 0-2-1 slide, the club is back at Rogers Arena for an important stretch of four home dates ahead of the Christmas break.

For all the good feeling around a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in six years during a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, Vancouver (18-9-2) was just three points up on ninth place in the Western Conference heading into Friday after consecutive losses in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

"We knew it was going to be tight," said captain Henrik Sedin. "I think after 29 games — 18 games on the road, 11 at home — we would have taken this record. It was a really disappointed team that flew back from Montreal, but if you look at where we are (and) playing at home for a while, we put ourselves in a good spot."

Daniel Sedin agreed with his brother's assessment that getting seven of a possible 14 points on the trip was something he would have taken back in September.

"You look at the schedule before the season and after this road trip, if someone would have told me we would have been in this position I would have been pretty happy," said Vancouver's assistant captain. "Now it's time to take care of business at home."

Canucks goalie Ryan Miller, who spent most of his career with the Buffalo Sabres, said he knew it was going to be a fight for every point in the West after signing with Vancouver as a free agent following a brief stint in St. Louis.

"That's kind of what I expected coming out here," he said. "You see it every season, there's no getting around it. From first place to eighth, ninth is not that far. It's competitive hockey. It's what everybody wants."

Nine of the Canucks' next 11 games are in Vancouver, beginning Saturday against former head coach Alain Vigneault and the New York Rangers (12-10-4).

Teams coming off long stretches on the road often have difficulty in their first game back home, but the Canucks don't see that as being a problem considering their current situation.

"I think we're honest with ourselves and we're aware of that," said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "We've lost three in a row and we need a win. Luckily we've had a couple days between getting home and playing that first game. There's been a lot of emphasis on this game.

"We're playing a former coach and a few former teammates ... I don't think it's a game that's going to be hard to get up for."

But after giving his team two days off to recuperate and re-energize, Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said Friday's practice demonstrated that the players were still shaking out some cobwebs.

"We were sluggish. It wasn't that the guys didn't want to go, it was just like they were skating in sand," said Desjardins. "I think the biggest thing is we know how big of a game it is. We know we have to be ready.

"We won't be overconfident coming in. We know we have to get going, and it will be tough."

After starting the seven-game swing with wins over Columbus, Washington and Pittsburgh in three of the first four outings, the Canucks said fatigue — and the corresponding mistakes — started to creep into the lineup.

"That was a tough road trip," said Daniel Sedin. "It is a long time — 14, 15 days is long — but I think we're used to that in this group. That's not an issue. You've got to find ways to get your energy level up, and that's up to each individual."

The Canucks also had a good start to last season under soon-to-be-fired head coach John Tortorella before falling off the rails, and this incarnation knows how quickly things can go sideways.

"They're all big, but this four-game segment gets put in a bubble with coming home and the Christmas break," said Bieksa. "It allows us to look at these games and make sure that we have a good showing.

"Expectations have obviously grown pretty high around here. We've been playing some good hockey to start the season."

Notes: The Canucks are 6-0-0 against the Metropolitan Division so far this season, while the Rangers are 1-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents. ... Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis remains out with a lower-body injury and will miss his 10th straight game on Saturday. ... Desjardins said forward Zack Kassian is getting closer to a return from his finger injury that saw him miss the entire road trip. ... The Canucks recalled Alex Biega on Friday from the AHL's Utica Comets after demoting fellow defenceman Frank Corrado and forward Nicklas Jensen to the minors on Wednesday.

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