After California adventure, Canucks know Pacific Division is NHL’s toughest

Harrison Mooney

ANAHEIM - John Tortorella's been nigh unshakeable since arriving in Vancouver, living up to his word as a man of changed approach, but this past weekend, we got a few brief trips down memory lane.

Saturday in Los Angeles, after a blowout 5-1 Kings win, we got playoff Tortorella, who spoke to the media for, oh, let's say one minute after the game. The second question he faced was about how long the Canucks would let the loss sit with them.

"As soon as I'm done here it's behind us," he said, before adding, half-seriously, that he hoped there would be no further questions.

There was one more question. But he responded to it with a smile. Changed approach, after all.

The following night, after another tough loss, a 3-1 defeat to the Anaheim Ducks that ended the road trip at 1-2-1, we got another Tortorella callback as he described the frustrating power play -- which might have been able to produce a different road record if it had, well, produced anything.

"Our power play sucked," he said, invoking the terse, blunt nature with which he once described New York Rangers' forward Carl Hagelin. On the bright side, at least this time he went after a unit instead of just one guy he refused to put on that unit. He's learning.

It's no surprise we saw a little bit of New York Torts in California. If anything was going to bring some of that back, it would be this road trip, with stops in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose, four of the most difficult places to visit in the NHL.

The California trip remains a lot of fun for the fans. They can fly or drive down over the weekend (I drove), they can get cheap tickets, and they can escape Vancouver's rainy season, which runs from now until forever, for a bit of California sun. But it's no fun for the Canucks, especially this year after realignment.

I'm of the mind that realignment hurt the Canucks the worst of all. There was a time when the Northwest Division was hockey's toughest, but that time passed long ago. For the past few seasons, it's been rivaled only by the Southeast as hockey's divisional equivalent of a class in social media -- just a snap. It meant racking up easy points against inferior opponents, and knowing that small slumps here and there weren't going to affect Vancouver's chances at the postseason. It meant a disappointing swing through California wasn't the end of the world, because at least you weren't bleeding away invaluable divisional points.

Not so any longer. The Northwest Division was a dog; the Pacific Division is a dogfight.

In the revamped Pacific Division, you'd better win every night, because everyone else is. Five teams in the division boast 11 wins at the time of this writing. To contrast, three teams in the entire Eastern Conference have won 11 games. Three teams in the Pacific have scored 60 goals. Only one other Western Conference team, the Chicago Blackhawks, has done that, and none have done so in the East.

Or consider this: the San Jose Sharks have picked up points in 15 of their 17 games. They're in third place, and six points behind first-place Anaheim.

It's hockey's toughest division, with five contenders battling it out for three guaranteed playoff spots. There are two wild cards up for grabs, of course, but the Central appears to be four teams strong as well, unexpectedly, which means that even a small slip-up from one of the Pacific's big five could see them squeezed out of the playoff picture.

It's going to be a battle all the way, and you can't be bleeding divisional points the way the Canucks did on this road trip.

They knew it, too, and as the trip got away from them over the weekend after a strong start with 3 out of 4 points versus Phoenix and San Jose, you could see the frustration. We saw it from Roberto Luongo, who was pulled for the first time in over a season in the game versus the Kings. Afterwards, he was asked by John Hoven if Staples was in his head, in much the same way many believe the TD Garden and the Xcel Energy Center are. He wasn't having it.

"No. I think we’ve won a series here. [And] I didn’t play the last time we were eliminated here," he snarked. "I think you’re off.”

Thing is, apart from the LA game, the Canucks played well enough to win 3 out of these 4. But they only won one, because playing well enough to win doesn't always mean you will win, especially against teams as good as these. You have to be near flawless, and the Canucks made errors.

Henrik Sedin summed up with happened in the LA game the best, and it doubled as a statement about what it's going to take to keep pace in this division.

“I don't know if it was our worst [game]," he said, "but we made too many mistakes and it seemed like every one of those cost us a goal."

Pretty much. And now, in the Pacific, too many mistakes -- and by too many, I mean just a few -- over the course of the season is going to cost them a shot at the ultimate goal. The Canucks, and really, any Pacific team, will be a lot stronger for this fight if they can survive it.

But as this road trip indicated, that's easier said than done.