Vancouver, April 13, 2009— The Vancouver Canucks surprised many last week, returning to the playoffs after a one year absence, landing in sixth spot, the result of a series of big wins in the final weeks of the season.
“We knew we were in a position to decide our own fate,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “It was a matter of staying focused and getting some big performances from unexpected sources.”
The Canucks certainly got that. After the blockbuster acquisition of Mats Sundin last December, many expected the multi-millionaire late addition to single-handedly be the catalyst that would boost this team to the next level, but instead the Canucks went into a January nosedive that few expected them to pull out of.
“I’m shocked they were able to manage it,” said Scott Burnside in his report filed on the ESPN website over the weekend. “My feeling in January was that they had no chance whatsoever to make the playoffs.”
When contacted by this reporter and asked to reflect on his increasingly negative predictions through February and early March, Burnside was unapologetic.
“I dare you to find anyone in this business who predicted Darcy fu#&ing Hordichuk was going to lead that team into the playoffs.”
Burnside might have a point.
After a fitful career as a scrapper, the affable Hordichuk has long been considered a role player there to motivate the team by fisticuffs and hard hits. It is for this reason that his accomplishments in the last four weeks—14 goals and 17 assists—have been no less than spellbinding.
“He’s been awesome,” says Mike Brown.
Brown, another unexpected surprise late in the season, has frequently been featured on Hordichuk’s right wing, picking up an impressive number of points himself during the drive for the playoffs. Along with Sundin in center position, the three have made for the most electrifying line in the NHL since mid-March.
“Hordy always said he had an eye for the net, but no one believed him,” says Sundin. “If it wasn’t for the Big Guy taking a chance on him, we’d never have known what he was capable of.”
The “Big Guy”, as the team now affectionately refers to Vigneault, might indeed be considered prescient for his decision to bookend Sundin with Brown and Hordichuk after the All Star break.
While many questioned the move (one popular local radio host abruptly asking listeners on March 11th if maybe Vigneault was “out of his f#$king head”) Vigneault himself says he had no doubts.
“You people have criticized me for mixing up lines here and there since I came to Vancouver, but I’m the coach. It was my call and I think I’ve finally been proven correct.”
General manager Mike Gillis echoes Vigneault’s confidence. “I knew Viggy was the man for the job when I saw his willingness to do anything, no matter how unorthodox the hockey media and Canucks’ fans thought it might be, in order to shake this team up.
“That’s why I publicly stated his job was safe after the All Star break. Viggy deserved to know we were confident in his decisions, no matter how stupid they might seem on the surface.”
With the playoffs looming ahead next week, it seems unlikely anyone will be advocating that Vigneault change his winning top line featuring Hordichuk, Sundin and Brown. But how does the team feel it matches up with the Detroit Red Wings going into the first round?
“We have confidence in ourselves, from the bottom of our roster all the way to the top,” says assistant captain Willie Mitchell. “We all thought the Big Guy was on the career skids till he pulled us out of the fire. Clearly, keeping Vigneault was the right move because no one else would ever have tried this insanely brilliant lineup shuffle.
“We know it won’t be an easy ride through to the Finals, but we’ve got a confident group here.
“After all, we’ve got Darcy Hordichuk. The hottest player in the league.”
—Report filed by Alanah McGinley, April 13, 2009, with apologies for all the times she said Vigneault’s ass should have been canned.