EDMONTON -- Since storming into the playoffs in first place overall didn't work, the Vancouver Canucks are going to try flying in under the radar.
Not that they have much say in the matter.
After back-to-back President's Trophy seasons, in which they couldn't follow up a their regular-season title with a Stanley Cup, the Canucks are nobody's favourite this season.
They're third in the Western Conference standings at 26-15-7 after a season-ending 7-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, and rank behind LA and St. Louis in most betting circles.
Fine with them, given how the last two years turned out.
"It was a challenging year because of the shortened season," said Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault. "And personnel-wise we were really challenged, we basically didn't have a second line all year long. But we were still able to find a way to win games, still able to win our division. So we're excited about the opportunity.
"We're as good as any of the 16 teams that are competing for the Stanley Cup."
Vancouver's goal in Saturday night's regular season finale against the Oilers was to stay healthy, which is why they sat out a handful of key players and used a few others sparingly. No sense risking anything in a meaningless contest.
They scored the only goal of the first period, and took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on a power play marker from Derek Roy, but looked a lot like a team that was just trying to get the season overwith.
That opened the door for the Oilers, who came to life in the final 40 minutes, with Nail Yakupov notching a hat-trick, Jordan Eberle scoring twice and defenceman Justin Schultz adding a goal and two assists as Edmonton ran away with things.
Now comes the serious part for the Cup-hungry Canucks.
After losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion in each of the last two seasons - the LA Kings in the first round last spring and the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final two years ago - they believe they've learned their share of lessons. It's time to close the deal, time to finally live up to all of that un-realized potential.
"Our group is battle tested,"said Vigneault. "I believe we have a really highly motivated group. We understand that we're in our window and we're ready for the opportunity."
This has been anything but a typical year for the Canucks. They finished 18 points out of first place in the West, struggled with injuries, had to deal with a season-long goaltending controversy and had to battle just to make the playoffs. While it's been a much rougher ride than they're accustomed to, they are convinced they'll be better for having faced the adversity.
"We had some tough moments this year that we had to go through together as a group,"said Daniel Sedin. "Maybe in the past things have gone pretty easy for us in the regular season, winning the President's Trophy and everything. This year we've been through a lot of ups and downs and that's helped us as a group. I really like our team right now."
The Oilers do not. They will miss the playoffs for the seventh year in a row, and ninth time in the last 12 years. They had high hopes for this season, but are left with no choice but to strip the team down once again.
"We made a step this year in putting ourselves in a playoff position with not a lot of games to play,"said Dubnyk. "We need to figure out what it was that kind of went south for us in these last 10 to 12 games. The good news is that we did put ourselves in a spot we hadn't been in, but we certainly can't be satisfied with that."
Even the rookies are tired of missing.
"I want to play in the playoffs and I think everybody wants layoffs, but it didn't happen," said winger Nail Yakupov, who closed out the regular season with a hat trick to lead all Oilers, and all NHL rookies, with 17 goals. "Maybe next year, we'll try to make the playoffs and play better."
NOTES: The Canucks, in resting up for the playoffs, sat out Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison, Alex Burrows, Daniel Sedin and Alex Edler. G Cory Schneider sat out another game with an undisclosed injury. ... Henrik Sedin played one shift, to keep his 629-game ironman streak on the go, and left the game ... Ryan Kesler took a puck in the ear four shifts into the first period and had to leave for repairs... Vancouver won the Northwest Division title for the fifth consecutive year ... Oilers defencemen Jeff Petry (USA) and Justin Schultz (Canada) have accepted invitations to play for their countries at the World Championships ... With 49 points in 45 games, LW Taylor Hall is the first Oiler to register a point-per-game for the season since Doug Weight in 2001.