Some of them came to cheer for a fan favourite wearing rival colours. The vast majority wanted to cheer on a Vancouver Canucks win.
What the hometown crowd got Saturday night wasn’t so much the Cody Hodgson show or the Sedins-go-wild show. There wasn’t even a win to applaud. Instead, it was the Buffalo Sabres riding a stunning first-period outburst to a 5-3 final.
On a night of varied storylines, from Hodgson’s return to new Canuck Zack Kassian facing his former Buffalo teammates, the one that stood tallest was what the Canucks didn’t do at the NHL trade deadline. They didn’t move backup goalie Cory Schneider and that may carry Vancouver a long way into the playoffs once again this spring.
The Canucks were a busy team at the trade deadline, acquiring Kassian and Marc-André Gragnani from Buffalo, and Sami Pahlsson from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Hodgson, enjoying a strong rookie season despite limited ice time with the Canucks, was the highest-profile player leaving town and that rankled many a B.C. hockey fan. They loved Hodgson’s offensive upside; team management loved Kassian’s size and tenacity and thus the deal was made.
But the Vancouver-Buffalo game Saturday played out beyond the obvious old faces in new faces. The Sabres scored fast and furious – two goals from Ville Leino and another from Brad Boyes. All of them were on the board by 5 minutes 10 seconds of the first period, which sent starting goaltender Roberto Luongo to the bench and ushered in Schneider to wild applause.
“The first goal, I thought [Leino]was going high. It’s not an excuse. I’ve got to make that play,” said Luongo, who spoke for many when he added, “Fortunately, Schneids came in and did a good job.”
Schneider made a key save early in his stint, underlying his importance to the Canucks and why the organization was so dead against losing him.
Compared to a year ago, Vancouver appears to be a better team. It has depth on defence. (Christopher Tanev and Andrew Alberts were scratched Saturday while Keith Ballard is expected to be ready for the playoffs.) It has more versatility up front. Kassian was a missing piece of the puzzle. He’s a basher who can skate and score the odd goal. Although he has spent time on the second line here, he’ll likely settle into the third line and provide the physical element the Canucks badly needed the deeper they went into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
To get there, they’ll need Luongo playing well and they’ll need Schneider, too. Against Buffalo, Luongo was beaten through the five-hole, was sprawled on the ice when the second goal was scored, and gave up a seeing-eye shot of a goal that wasn’t called at the time. (A replay review was held minutes later when the play finally stopped.)
Asked to explain why he pulled Luongo, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was to the point: “He had given up three goals on six shots. It’s self-explanatory.”
Schneider was beaten for a goal, too. It came off a point shot by Buffalo’s Christian Ehrhoff that deflected off the skate of Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome. Everything else was self-explanatory. Schneider stopped them.
Luongo has had more of the starts for Vancouver this season, but Schneider has posted the better save percentage and goals-against average. There were teams interested in acquiring him from the Canucks and there was talk that if Vancouver wanted Rick Nash from Columbus, then Schneider would have to be part of the package. The Canucks refused all comers. Even in a losing cause Saturday, keeping the 25-year-old Schneider proved a wise decision, one that should pay off richly in the months ahead.
As for old faces in new places Saturday, Hodgson was only so-so while Kassian had a goal and an assist and Gragnani was minus-2.
David Booth scored twice for the Canucks. Tyler Ennis scored into the empty net to seal the outcome for Buffalo.