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Pacific-leading Canucks claim first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2020 | Radio-Canada Sports

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Ian Cole vividly remembers how he felt before playing in his first NHL playoff game.

“Honestly, I just remember being scared,” he said, punctuating his sentence with a slight expletive.

“You’re so scared because you know how important it is. You’re like, ‘Don’t make a mistake! Don’t make a mistake! Don’t make a mistake!’

The scare didn’t last, but Cole’s playoff career did. The veteran defenseman played in 116 post-season games and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

He now shares that experience with his Vancouver Canucks teammates as they prepare for their first playoff series in four years.

“I think the most important thing we should focus on is getting our game to its peak, the best it can be before we go into battle,” Cole said.

The Canucks (45-20-8) secured their playoff spot on Saturday, becoming the first Canadian team to book their spot.

The upcoming race has been a long time coming.

The Canucks last played post-season hockey in Edmonton at the end of the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

Six players from that team are on the current roster. But the games in the bubble didn’t provide a typical playoff experience, Canucks forward JT Miller said.

‘I learned a lot’ from past playoffs

“We had some special moments as a team. That’s the one thing you’re really going to remember,” said Miller, who appeared in 78 playoff games, including the NFL final. ‘Is with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers.

“The intensity is in the game, but there’s just no emotion in the game, obviously. And that’s a huge part of the game. I’m not going to discredit the teams that went far. It was a difficult time, but we learned a lot.”

The Canucks haven’t hosted a playoff game since 2015. Three of Vancouver’s top stars — right winger Brock Boeser, center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes — went undrafted at the time.

It’s the same game, but it’s not the same despair. …Every piece matters exponentially more.— Canucks defenseman Ian Cole on NHL playoff hockey

They are among several Canucks players who will get their first taste of the real NHL playoffs next month.

The team’s veterans, including Cole, are eager to share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

“For the most part, the message is just that it’s the same game,” Cole said. “Let’s not make it something that it’s not. Let’s not make it such a massive entity that you can’t handle the situation.

“It’s the same game, but it’s not the same desperation. The desperation increases. Every play counts exponentially.”

As intensity increases, so does the need to pay attention to the small parts of your game, Teddy Blueger said.

“Obviously the cost of mistakes is a little higher,” said the center, who won the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights last season. “So I think you just have to be really tuned in and focused and determined to do your job, be willing to put your body on the line physically, block shots, all those little details.

“A lot of playoff games or even regular season games are decided by very small margins. It’s kind of working out all those little details to play hard, do your job and execute well.”

One difference between the regular season and a best-of-seven game is the ebb and flow that comes with a series, Nikita Zadorov said.

“Emotional swings” in a 7-game series

“There’s no panic, it’s a long game,” said the defenseman, who played 45 playoff games. “It’s a seven-game series, anything can happen. There’s definitely some emotional swings during the series, so I think you’re going to win those dynamic games. There’s a lot of plays inside games, there’s a lot of stuff, that’s for sure.”

Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet has witnessed many of these tricks.

During his playing career, the power forward played in 145 playoff games and won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 1992. He added two more championship titles to his resume as an assistant coach with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Coaches have a key role to play in keeping players on a level playing field as they navigate the emotions of playoff hockey, Tocchet said.

“You also have to be calm. You’re on a plane and the cockpit door is open and you see the pilot in turbulence, biting his nails and sweating, what are you going to do?” he said. “So I can’t bite my nails, be (angry). I also have to be calm.”

The Canucks have hovered near the top of the NHL standings for much of the season, and with nine games remaining, they lead the Pacific Division, four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers.

There have been challenges, including a stretch in February where Vancouver went seven games without a victory in regulation (1-5-1). But there have also been successes, like the 11-game point streak (9-0-2) the Canucks were on before the All-Star break.

The lessons learned throughout the campaign will serve the team well in the weeks to come, Cole said.

“I think consistency can give you a foundation to fall back on when things get stressful and in situations that go wrong. Because inevitably, they will,” he said.

“They’ll win a game, you’ll be down 5-3, no matter what. You’re going to have to build on what you’ve been through all year.”

The Canucks will be back in action on Sunday when they host the Anaheim Ducks at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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