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Are the Vancouver Canucks for real?
@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Just the other day a Western Conference general manager offered me some unsolicited thoughts on the Canucks. "They're the team this year that's going to surprise everyone. I really didn't know what to think of them this season, but look at what they've done already. I think they're going to stick around,'' he said. Indeed, the Canucks have quietly dropped only two games in regulation this season, and improved to 6-2-4 with a 4-1 home win Monday night over the Philadelphia Flyers. If the Canucks do make the playoffs this season, it'll be because GM Jim Benning's attempt to marry the old guard with the new will have succeeded more quickly than most thought. The key goals Monday night were scored by sophomore Bo Horvat and rookie Jake Virtanen, just the latest example of the next generation of Canucks doing their thing. Can Vancouver hang in?
@ESPNJoeMac: Pierre, when Benning was hired away from the Boston Bruins, it was only a matter of time before the Canucks returned to prominence. Benning is a great evaluator of young talent, and he's also respected by veteran players for his experience and knowledge. He's in the midst of creating a winning product using a mix of talented youth and veteran experience. It's still early in the season, but the Canucks have positioned themselves atop the Pacific Division. Another aspect of Benning's keen hockey sense is his ability to know when a young player is ready to seize an opportunity, and that's what Canucks fans witnessed Monday when Virtanen scored the first goal of his career. To answer your question, Pierre, the Canucks can hang in because that youthful spark could keep that team energized for an entire season. Goaltender Ryan Miller, who made 27 saves Monday, needs to have a strong season, though.
@CraigCustance: It's not an easy task bringing in young talent while still training to maintain a respectable product on the ice. You're right, Pierre, the Canucks have done a nice job doing exactly that. Horvat and Virtanen have been great additions, and the best part is they've been introduced to the NHL in a winning atmosphere. That's not the case for some other high-profile young players. The Canucks are getting strong goaltending from Miller, which definitely helps. He's now 5-2-4 with a .927 save percentage. If he maintains that save percentage, it would be his best season since 2009-10 and the second best of his career. It's a little concerning that he's faced more shots than any goalie in the league, though. I'm still not sold on the Canucks, but they play in the Pacific, reason enough to believe they'll stay in the playoff mix all season.
@ESPN_Burnside: Toronto upending Dallas gave me pause, but outside the "blind squirrel" category, the Chicago Blackhawks' 4-2 win over the Kings was a nice reminder of just how well GM Stan Bowman has built his team. Yes, Brandon Saad was unexpectedly dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets over the summer, but center Artem Anisimov came back in that deal and came up big with a short-handed goal and an assist against the Kings. That's five goals on the season for Anisimov, who is playing mostly with Patrick Kane (who also had a goal and an assist). The Blackhawks were without Duncan Keith, still out with a knee injury, and Marian Hossa. But youngsters Artemi Panarin (assist), Teuvo Teravainen (goal) and Viktor Svedberg (assist) chipped in to help Chicago win its sixth straight at home and end a two-game slide, a nice illustration of how the defending champions are retooling on the fly. It was a game that also put us in mind of the 2014 Western Conference finals (one of the greatest playoff series of this generation) and suggests a rematch next spring isn't out of the question.
Around the league
• The Blackhawks announced earlier Monday they have sent forward Bryan Bickell, who received a contract extension worth $4 million annually in June 2013, to their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.