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It’s been 12 years since the Vancouver Canucks have been this good, this late

Last time the team topped the NHL standings in mid-February was in 2012
Buffalo Sabres right wing Tage Thompson (72) and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes (43) battle for position in front of the net during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Rick Tocchet does not want a lot of wandering minds around the Vancouver Canucks’ locker room. He would rather his players focus simply on the next game.

“We can’t think of the big picture,” Tocchet said. “The only thing you can tell your players is short-term goals. You can’t think long term.”

The Canucks are so in sync with their coach that after winning in overtime Sunday, Conor Garland noted it was still a good effort he and his teammates would have been proud of even had they lost.

There hasn’t been a lot of losing at all for Vancouver since the puck dropped in October. The Canucks are atop the NHL standings this late in a season for the first time since 2012 — five coaches and countless players removed from the franchise’s last era of winning.

“We’ve obviously had a lot more success this year than we have in the past,” said Thatcher Demko, whose play in net is one of the big reasons for that. “It’s obviously something that we’ve wanted to do, and we just haven’t been able to up to this point. And we know there’s a lot of hockey left, so we’re staying focused on the task at hand. Obviously, we’ve got to make sure that we’re winning when it counts.”

Demko and the Canucks know they haven’t accomplished anything yet, with the playoffs still two months away. Still, with captain Quinn Hughes leading the way and Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller producing at career-year levels, they’ve positioned themselves as one of the leading contenders for the Stanley Cup.

They also just added the best center available in the trade market, acquiring Elias Lindholm from Calgary just before the All-Star break.

“With that trade, they’re telling us and everyone that we may have a chance,” said Hughes, whose 65 points through 53 games are the most by a defenseman this season. “I think that we have a really good team. It’s been a great 50 games or whatever that we’ve played. Now we just need to put our foot on the gas and try to dial in our game.”

The Canucks’ game is a little bit of everything, starting with controlling the puck. They lead the league with 3.68 goals per game and are tied for third in goals allowed at 2.58. Vancouver has not lost more than two games in a row all season.

“We’re pretty aware of when we play well and when we don’t,” Garland said. “That’s the best thing about us: When we have a bad effort, we’ll follow it up with a good one.”

Beating the Capitals on Sunday on Miller’s goal with 4.8 seconds left in 3-on-3 OT was the perfect example of that. Playing on back-to-back afternoons, Tocchet noticed some fatigue in a “mucky” game and was glad to see his team adjust to that and limit mistakes when it mattered.

“That means you have to play smart,” Tocchet said. “Some games you’ve got to play when you don’t have your legs, and you’ve got to play smart.”

Midway through his first full season coaching the Canucks after taking over for Bruce Boudreau in January 2023, Tocchet consistently talks about being process-oriented more than worrying about the results. The message has certainly resonated with players.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re focused and ready to go,” Miller said. “We’ve got to continue to kind of play to our standard that we’re trying to create and maintain that standard.”

In all, 31 of their league-best 35 wins have come in regulation against just 12 regulation losses. Even some sloppy play coming out of the All-Star break hasn’t scuttled the Canucks, who look to have the depth for a long postseason run.

“We just have to keep pushing forward,” veteran defenseman Tyler Myers said. “It’s not looking too far ahead or what happened the game before, win or lose. We just got to keep pushing and keep working on things to get better each and every day.”

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