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Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - Page updated at 09:19 AM

NHL

Season preview: Canucks seek Cup as NHL breaks ice

After 16 months and a missed season because of labor strife, the Vancouver Canucks and the NHL's 29 other teams come out of their deep freeze today.

The league, focusing its efforts on grabbing back its lost fans, hedges its season on a young phenom (Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby), old names (Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky) and new rules.

And in Vancouver, the Canucks' focus is on one thing: the Stanley Cup.

"Our goal is the cup," said Todd Bertuzzi, reinstated in August after serving a 17-month suspension for his attack on Steve Moore, then of the Colorado Avalanche.

"We have a small window of opportunity here with guys playing their best. You have the core group that is very solid. Anything less wouldn't be acceptable."

Vancouver has put together four consecutive seasons of 90 or more points but has won just a single playoff series during that stretch. Time is ticking on the Canucks and things won't be any easier in the tough Northwest Division where Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota have gotten better.

"We know we're not getting any younger," said Brendan Morrison, 30, who plays center on the Canucks' high-octane first line with Bertuzzi, 30, and Markus Naslund, 32.

"We're a team that gained quite a bit of experience here the last four years of the playoffs. We've also had early exits the last four years."

How well the Canucks do this season could depend on which Bertuzzi pulls on the No. 44 jersey.

The Canucks are hoping for the one that scored 46 goals and had 97 points in 2002-03. What they don't want is the Bertuzzi who managed just 17 goals and 43 assists in 69 games before being suspended for the remainder of the 2004 season following his senseless attack on Moore.

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Bertuzzi will be under intense scrutiny this season, especially as the Canucks make their first swing through the league. His ability to shut out the outside distractions will be tested. He didn't dress for any of Vancouver's away exhibition games.

The big forward, who has the ability to throw a punishing hit, then follow it up with a soft touch around the net, has shown some rust in the preseason.

"He feels he has a lot to prove," Morrison said. "There are going to be a lot of questions asked about him. I think come the time things get serious, he will be ready to go."

Vancouver emerged from the yearlong NHL labor dispute relatively unscathed in personnel. The Canucks will have 17 players returning from the team that won 43 games to collect 101 points and win the division in 2003-04.

Considering the NHL rule changes and the league's emphasis on speed and scoring, the line of Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi should be able to exceed their combined total of 119 goals and 153 assists recorded in 2002-03, their last full season together.

Dan Cloutier, who has won 30 or more games the last three seasons, is back in goal while the Canucks' defense boasts veterans such as Ed Jovanovski, Sami Salo, Mattias Ohlund and Bryan Allen.

Canucks management hopes by adding free-agent forward Anson Carter they've finally found a winger that can complement Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin on Vancouver's second line.

Another free agent, Richard Park, has brought speed and a deadly accurate wrist shot to Vancouver's third line.

Many Canucks fans are already planning the Stanley Cup parade route, but the playoffs have become a school of hard knocks for the Canucks. Naslund said it's time the team graduated from postseason failure to success.

"We're hoping this year is the year," said the Canucks captain. "The thing for us is hopefully we've learned from the past experiences and it made us better."

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