Well, the Vancouver Canucks managed to beat the NHL’s worst team, but it was hardly a resounding victory, so the spectre of the recent slump - just three wins in the past nine - still hangs over the elite team as it heads on its last road trip of the regular season.
Some facts from the Saturday night match against the (distant) last-place Columbus Blue Jackets don’t look good, at least on paper, starting with the final result, that Vancouver was only able to beat the visitors 4-3. On the penalty kill, the Canucks were successful blanking Columbus in two attempts but had to expend considerable effort to do so, perhaps a small red flag given the Blue Jackets have the worst power play in the league and had been 0-for-29 in their six games before arriving in Vancouver.
Still, the Blue Jackets did not resemble a team with nothing to play for, challenging the Canucks. The match remained close until the final horn: in the third period, Columbus peppered 18 shots on Vancouver, and the visitors blocked an impressive 34 shots over the course of the night.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game,” said Canucks goalie Cory Schneider after the win, on a night when his play was fairly good but certainly not great. There was no evidence that he should oust starter Roberto Luongo, which at least some team fans are hoping.
With second place in the conference nearly assured, the Canucks don’t need wins to pile up points but desperately want to shake the recent funk. It is now two consecutive Saturday nights at home, with both games televised on Hockey Night in Canada, where Vancouver has not done well against bad teams, embarrassed by Montreal a week ago and scraping by Columbus Saturday night.
The team, starting Monday in Minnesota, plays four games on the road in six nights. With the second-best road record in the NHL, the Canucks’ play in, and results from, the latter three games will be a key indicator for the spring, as all three are possible playoff opponents: the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, Dallas Stars on Thursday, and Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.
The Canucks’ situation is similar to other top NHL teams. While Pittsburgh is amazing, winning 11 straight, and St. Louis is strong, the likes of Boston, Detroit and the New York Rangers are all having problems, like the Canucks. And like the Canucks, beyond seeing the obvious problems on defence, in goal, and scoring, there is no real answer as to why the best squads are shaky.
“It’s Twilight Zone-ish,” said Boston goaltender Tim Thomas several days ago of his team’s slump and his own suddenly so-so play after early season dominance.
He added - likely not thinking of turning down invitations from President Barack Obama: “I don’t know what we did, but we did something to put luck not in our favour.”
One of the newest Canucks, veteran centre Sammy Pahlsson, suggested strong teams do look ahead, even as coaches such as Vancouver's Alain Vigneault preach the one-game-at-a-time religion.
“We’re not set for the playoffs yet but we’re pretty much there,” said Pahlsson after a Friday morning practice. “Maybe guys look too far forward and focus on that instead of the game we’re playing right now.”
And there is reasonable, or even good, reason why the Canucks may be casting an eye ahead. They have very recent memories of the grind required to make the Cup final, and go seven games in that series in June. And because of their huge lead in the Northwest Division, the Canucks have a near-guaranteed lock on second in the West, home-ice at least through the first two rounds, and possibly all the way through the playoffs, depending on who they face.
Just how much of a lock is second? According to number-crunching website sportsclubstats.com, even if the Canucks go 2-7-2 over their last 11 - two wins in their last 11 - they would still have a 90-per-cent chance of holding on to No. 2.
There were signs of improvement for Vancouver, beyond the basics of getting the win. The American Express line - the second trio of Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Chris Higgins - was a force, seems to be really gelling after various injuries and illness, and has the potential to be a significant difference-maker as spring unfolds.
Booth, voted the game’s third star, evened the game at one late in the first after Columbus jumped out to a lead on a weird goal, with the puck somehow dribbling past Schneider, who was also bewildered, having no explanation for what happened after the game. (“You tell me,” he said.)
The power play was the other clear positive. The Canucks were cracked around while the referees watched, whistles silent, such as crosschecks in the back against the likes of Kesler and Henrik Sedin. But of the three calls they did get, they scored twice. The result - after going two-for-three in a loss against Phoenix on Wednesday - helped further revive a key element of the Canucks’ game, and put them back atop the NHL, with a conversion percentage at 21.6, 0.1 percentage points ahead of Nashville.
The second power-play goal was quite something, amazing, yet plain-looking, a combination the likes of defenceman Alex Edler pulls off sometimes. He took a short pass from Schneider as he was coming back to the defensive zone, circled his own net, and then took off up ice, at his quick clip. Coming over the red line, he sensed he could go all the way, with Columbus guessing on a potential drop pass. Instead, Edler rolled into the Columbus zone unmolested and wide open. On the eventual breakaway, Edler made a simple move and put it through the goalie’s legs.
It was his 11th of the season, a career high in goals, and with his assist on the Daniel Sedin’s third-period power-play goal (the game winner), Edler increases his best-ever point total to 45 in 71 games.
Defence remains a question for Vancouver. Edler, for one, was minus-2 on the night, and is minus-3 on the season. Then there was the shot barrage from the NHL’s second-lowest scoring team.
Schneider, who will likely see work on the road trip, probably Monday in Minnesota at the very least, said some travelling could do the team good.
“Maybe heading on the road is just what we need right now,” he said. “Just get away from everything.”