By Stu Hackel
It’s a difficult task to repeat as a champion in the NHL. No Stanley Cup winner has done it since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. But it’s also tough just to reach the Cup final in consecutive years. Only five clubs have managed that since 1988 which, if my math is correct — always a tricky proposition — means that almost 90 percent of the time, teams don’t get a return trip to the fourth round.
The way Canucks are playing right now, they look like they’ll be hanging with that 90 percent.
To be fair, no jury should return a verdict on this club until all the postseason evidence is in — and a lot can happen in the next few weeks to improve the picture. However, it was only a few weeks ago that the Canucks were sitting first overall in the league, looking quite strong and playoff-ready. But their sloppy 5-4 loss to the Coyotes on Wednesday night (a game they led 2-0 early on) meant they’ve grabbed only six of their last possible 16 points and haven’t looked good doing it. The last six of those eight games were at home. They finish their seven-game homestand Saturday against Columbus.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but this skid began on the eve of the trade deadline. The following day, GM Mike Gillis dispatched Cody Hodgson to the Sabres for Zach Kassian, the most surprising deal of all (and one that, some believe, Hodgson requested). Hodgson had finally found some rhythm to his game, although he was miscast the Canucks’ third line center. He wasn’t going to dislodge Henrik Sedin or Ryan Kesler from the top two lines, but he had scored 16 goals, good for fourth on the club, in limited ice time, and he grew as a power play specialist.
In Kassian, the Canucks got a banger with hands — a Cam Neely-Milan Lucic type that many observers said they lacked — although he’s less of a finished product than Hodgson. The Canucks also picked up a legitimate third line center by the deadline in Sami Pahlsson (no one ever mistook Hodgson for Guy Carbonneau as a third line shutdown center). In theory, this looks like a wise move. But did the deal disrupt team chemistry? Did it rob Vancouver of offensive depth?
Then there’s the mystery of the vanishing Sedin twins. There have been no goals from either since Daniel scored a pair on Feb. 23 against Detroit. Henrik’s last tally was Feb. 19 and his two assists Wednesday night were his first points since that goal. Daniel also picked up an assist, but he only has one other helper since his two-goal game. Borderline panic, which is the way of Canucks Nation, set in a week ago as The Sun asked in a readers’ poll if the Sedins, at age 31, are on the downside of their NHL careers. The readers overwhelmingly said no, but something wasn’t right.
Iain MacIntyre in The Sun called what ailed the twins, “The Sedin Contagion” and noted that the figurative virus had spread to other Canucks who began firing blanks. To cure them, coach Alain Vigneault gave the team two days away from the rink this week, then came back with a revamped lineup for the Coyotes game. Alex Burrows was off the Sedin line and on the third line but on the first power play unit. Mason Raymond was promoted from the third line to join the Sedins. The defense pairings were shuffled. Manny Malhotra, who has struggled, was a healthy scratch. Only the American Express Line of Kesler, David Booth and Chris Higgins stayed intact. The result was a better power play, more offense and improved energy than in the last few games (especially compared to the lethargic outing last Saturday against lowly Montreal, a 4-1 loss), but there were also many missed passes, costly turnovers, and blown defensive assignments. Allowing five goals — two on the power play — to the offensively challenged Coyotes isn’t a good sign.
The Canuck most afflicted by the Sedin Contagion is Roberto Luongo. Some in Vancouver will say he was the original carrier. Against the Canadiens last Saturday, he was dreadful on two goals by Eric Cole, the game-winner a backhand shot along the ice to the glove side and an insurance tally on a rebound that he couldn’t control. And that’s the way it’s been for him lately. He was no better on Wednesday, allowing the Coyotes into the game with this goal by Rusty Klesla on a puck that rebounded from a sharp angle off Luongo and 30 feet straight up the slot.
Then he allowed Phoenix their first lead of the game on this shot by Oliver Ekman-Larsson that, replays showed, went straight in off Luongo’s glove hand even though he had a clear view of it.
Luongo saw that shot, and moved his arm to get it, but missed getting the puck in his glove. The game-winner by Antoine Vermette came on another rebound that Luongo could not control.
This loss and the Canucks’ poor play of late are not just on Luongo. The whole team has been flat or out-of-sorts in some way. But he’s not making the saves to bail them out either, which is what the best goalies do, and the goals he gave the Coyotes are just a result of his not being sharp once again.
In The Sun prior to the Coyotes game, MacIntyre wondered why backup Cory Schneider wasn’t playing more. “It’s true that Luongo was the Canucks’ MVP in December, January and February,” he wrote. “But Schneider is 8-0-1 in nine starts since Dec. 15. Retreat a month further, and Schneider is 13-2-1 in 18 appearances since Nov. 16. His goals-against average is 1.81 the last four months and his save percentage is .943.”
Is this a blip or is Luongo permanently fading in the stretch? His goals against average for the month of March is 3.97, his save percentage is .879.
In the first intermission on the Canucks’ Sportsnet telecast of the Phoenix game, MacIntyre and former Canuck Dixon Ward debated the point. MacIntyre contended that Luongo isn’t getting the job done and Schneider has been better lately, so Schneider should start playing in more games to get him ready for the playoffs. Ward took the position, often articulated by the club, that Luongo was a playoff standout last season, he’s the guy they’ll count on this year, and he needs to play the bulk of the games down the stretch in order to get his game together.
But at a certain point, if Luongo continues to falter, won’t Vigneault be forced to alter that plan and consider Schneider as his guy if he wants to get back to the final?
The problem, as it has long been, is Luongo’s massive contract that runs until 2022. Few coaches in sport will bench a top-paid player for long, if at all, out of fear of drawing management and ownership wrath. “Vigneault has said many times that he ices the lineup that gives the Canucks the best chance to win,” MacIntyre wrote. “With Luongo two years into a 12-year, $64-million contract, no one should be naïve enough to think Vigneault’s standard applies nightly to the goal crease.”
And the big-ticket player knows that, too. Like many athletes who get the huge payday, Luongo may not feel the need to push himself in practice or work on his longstanding obvious flaws, such as pucks shot at his feet and lack of rebound control.
Observers have long contended that if this were a real competition, Luongo vs. Schneider, the better goalie would get the work. But, they contend, it hasn’t been a fair fight and it looks like it will stay unfair at least for the immediate future. With Luongo playing the way he has, that won’t help Vancouver get back to the final, much less win the Cup.
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