Canucks on right track

Finishing a season with only two wins in 21 games is hardly a benchmark of success. Unless you're the Vancouver Canucks.

One of those wins came on Harold Druken's dramatic overtime goal in the second-last game of the NHL's regular season, which earned the Canucks their first playoff berth in five years and first tangible sign of success.

And the Canucks fans who stood cheering for the final 2:40 and through the series-ending handshakes with the Colorado Avalanche seemed to think so, too.

Before players posed for final team pictures Thursday, coach Marc Crawford said there will be benefits from Vancouver's playoff appearance even though the Canucks were swept 4-0 following Wednesday's 5-1 loss.

He metaphorically compared his young team to an adolescent falling in love for the first time.

"You're excited about what's going on," he said. "The playoffs are a beautiful, beautiful thing.

"Like I told them, there's something more. We want to taste that something more.

"Like any young adolescent, this team is going to mature and it's going to know the love of the playoffs."

Getting there wasn't easy.

Without leading scorer Markus Naslund (41 goals, broken leg) and top playmaker Andrew Cassels (44 assists, sprained ankle) Vancouver went 2-11-6-2 to end its season.

"It's Over," said the morning headline in the Vancouver Province.

But general manager Brian Burke saw the season as a new beginning, especially off the ice.

"From a business standpoint, when I got here this was a team that was at risk in terms of moving and we've salvaged that thanks to the fans and corporate community," he said.

Burke estimated losses this season at $12 million Cdn compared to more than $25 million last year.

"While the picture has significantly improved, we're still losing money," Burke said. "It's still not near where it has to be."

Desperately in need of penalty killing, Burke said he will focus on upgrading the Canucks' forward corps, although upgrades at centre are a low priority.

While Vancouver reached the post-season, Colorado exposed the Canucks' lack of depth and talent.

The Avalanche power play scored more goals than the entire Canuck roster.

The Canucks, the fifth-youngest team in the NHL, have improved every year since Burke took over from Pat Quinn in June 1998 after the franchise's 46-point output.

The tide is still rising as Vancouver earned 58 points in Burke's first year and 83 last season.

Burke, whose Irish temper often produces bellows at officials five storeys below his GM Place team suite, has slashed the payroll while building through the draft.

Former captain Mark Messier wasn't re-signed after the enigmatic Alex Mogilny was traded to New Jersey.

"Fan support has put us back in a position where we can compete," Burke said. "The second thing is people can now see that the blueprint is working.

"People are saying they were right to stick with the kids; they were right not to make any trades at the deadline."

Naslund blossomed outside Messier's shadow and became a soft-spoken captain who led by example.

Canucks fans also saw the promise of the rosy-cheeked Sedin twins, who now are referred to by first names by local media, much like basketball superstars.

Daniel had 20 goals and 34 points while Henrik had 29 points.

In addition to Naslund, rugged winger Todd Bertuzzi, speedy Brendan Morrison, former first-overall pick Ed Jovanovski, Peter Schaefer, Druken, enforcer Donald Brashear and abrasive Matt Cooke, who led the Canucks in hits, had career years.

And while 13 more Canucks now have valuable playoff experience, getting there revealed deficiencies.

The goaltending tandem of streaky Bob Essensa and unproven Dan Cloutier ranked last among the 16 playoff teams.

On Dec. 10, the Canucks led the NHL in goals but when Naslund and Cassels went down, the scoring dried up -- nine goals in one eight-game stretch near the end of the schedule.

Naslund's value was emphasized in March when he was named the club's player of the month -- and he played only half the month.

"We learned a lot about ourselves, that we can play with the top teams in this league," said Morrison. "We competed hard every night and gained a lot of respect."

Bertuzzi said the goal this season was to get playoff experience.

"It may not have been many (games) but they will sit in our heads for a long time.

"We know what it takes, we know what we have to do and we'll be prepared next year."

Naslund, who had to be draped over trainers' shoulders to get on the ice for the team photo because of his broken leg, said he could see his team's character grow as a result of making the playoffs.

"The thing that stands out is the playoff run," he said. "The guys played so gritty and so hard and showed that can take you far.

"Obviously, their (Avalanche) talent was a little bit better, but with a healthy lineup and determination, we can go pretty far."

By Ron Sudlow