On Saturday night, the 2011-12 regular season came to a close for the Vancouver Canucks when the team wrapped up a second straight President's Trophy. Let me say that again: a second straight President's Trophy. That is a pretty damn impressive accomplishment. Since 1985-86, when the trophy was introduced, it has been won in consecutive years just five times. If we leave aside the dynastic Oilers and would-be dynastic Flames of the 1980s, who won the first four trophies, the Canucks are just one of three teams to accomplish the feat.
But, aside from ensuring home ice advantage for the duration of their playoff run, I could not care less about this accomplishment right now. And I know most other Canucks fans feel the same way.
In fact, this entire regular season has for me been, without a doubt, the weirdest since I became a fan as a child in the late 1980s. You know that ambivalent feeling you get when the preseason starts? That "Oh cool, hockey's back, but only kinda, sorta - I'll maintain a mild interest but wait for the real games to start before I get excited" feeling? That's basically how I've felt the entire Canucks regular season, and I know I'm certainly not alone. The whole season has felt like an extended preseason in which the Canucks work on weaknesses in their game, work out kinks, and prepare mentally and physically for the real season - which, in the Canucks' case, starts tomorrow night.
As has been written many, many times, anything less than a Stanley Cup victory is a disappointment for this team. That is patently unfair, given the long odds and huge amount of luck needed to actually winning 16 playoff games. But, at this point, fans (and players and management) expect nothing less than Lord Stanley's mug. And as such, the regular season didn't really matter much.
Usually I am pretty stoked for NHL hockey from October onwards. I watch as many games as a possibly can, voraciously read about the Canucks and their fortunes throughout the season, and ride the highs of winning streaks and lows of slumps. This year? Not so much.
Sure, I watched lots of games, and kept up closely with the team. But I lacked the all-consuming passion I usually feel for the regular season. A few games were particularly memorable - the victory of the Bruins stands out as particularly notable - but there was none of the giddiness I felt last year watching the Canucks dominate the league and Daniel join his brother as NHL scoring champion. The games this season felt like glorified practice, exercises the team necessarily had to go through in order to prepare for the real season.
This is, for me, an extremely strange feeling. In the formative years of my life as a fan, making the playoffs was a cause for excitement and I was stoked if we could get through the First Round and extend the season that much further (playing the Jets was seemingly a guarantee of winning an exciting 7-game series and then getting to watch Smythe Division Final hockey). But I did not have high expectations for the Canucks back then. Sure I cheered for them, and dreamed of them hoisting the Cup, but I certainly never expected them to win it - and as a result, I enjoyed the journey of the season far more than the result. As much as you may love them, you can only expect so much out of squads with a solid core and cobbled together parts like Mike Ridley, Esa Tikkanen, or Geoff Sanderson. You can hope for success, but you can't really expect.
Even during the West Coast Express years I was better able to enjoy the regular season, enjoy its ups and wallow in its downs, root on the talented yet imperfect squad on the ice. Yes, you knew the team was expected to be a playoff threat, but the journey of getting to the second season was still pleasurable for me as a fan.
But the Canucks of the past few seasons are a very different team than the one I watched for much of my life. This team is built to win, masterfully constructed by Mike Gillis upon an extremely strong foundation laid by his predecessors. Even without the individual successes of last season - Daniel's Art Ross and Pearson wins, and Hart nomination; Kesler's Selke; nominations for the Vezina for Luongo (man, fans have a short memory) and for the Adams for Vigneault - this team feels better, stronger, tougher, and more prepared to win. And if something is built to win, how can anything less than winning be satisfactory?
Of course I know better. I know how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup. I know that the wear and tear from a deep playoff run last season may eventually catch up to the Canucks. I know that one injury or bad bounce can derail even the best team's Cup aspirations. And I know that I have watched many mediocre or terrible Canucks squads over the past two decades, and should be grateful to even be rooting for such a talented and (relatively) successful team.
But what my head knows, my heart does not feel. Thank goodness that the regular season - the strangest of my life, for me personally - is over. Let the playoffs begin and let's see what this team can do. The Canucks gave their fans a hell of a ride last spring. Here's hoping they do it again and that they can, at last, take that final step to Stanley Cup glory.