The season’s on the line, again.
The key to victory: it takes goals to win hockey games and the Vancouver Canucks, for the past two months, have barely been able to score goals.
Forget about the power play. The Canucks barely can score any goals at all.
In 27 games from a Feb. 21 loss to the Nashville Predators through Game 4 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks have scored 60 goals.
That’s 2.22 goals a game. If the two months is measured against all teams through the 2011-12 season, Vancouver’s attack (so celebrated last year) would rank second-worst in the NHL, ahead of Minnesota’s 2.02 and behind L.A.’s 2.29.
So as the puck drops just after 5 p.m. PT on Sunday for Game 5, another must-win for Vancouver, down 3-1 to L.A., the Cory Schneider-Roberto Luongo situation obscures the way, way bigger question for the Canucks. Schneider gets the start for the third straight playoff game - a huge changing of the goaltending guard in Vancouver - but Schneider presumably won’t invoke his inner Ron Hextall and himself score on L.A.
During Vancouver’s long drought - during which the team made a run for, and clinched, the Presidents’ Trophy - team captain Henrik Sedin notched two goals. Daniel Sedin, just returned from concussion, had four in 15 games and sat out 12 games. David Booth, brought to Vancouver in October for scoring punch, had five. Ryan Kesler had four- and as of Sunday morning hadn’t scored in 39 days.
Thirty-nine days, zero goals, for a man who scored 41 last season on the way to a Selke Trophy win.
And it can’t all be blamed on the amazing play of L.A.’s goaltender Jonathan Quick, or the ferocious Kings defence. In the final two games of the regular season, in big games for the Kings, rival San Jose Sharks scored eight goals, beating L.A. twice.
Compare and contrast: San Jose’s eight goals in two games on L.A., and the Canucks’ seven goals in four games (which likely reminds Vancouver fans of eight goals in seven games last June against the Boston Bruins.)
Will goals emerge? Or do the Canucks need shutouts or near-shutouts from Schneider, he who has ceded just two goals in two games, with a playoffs-best save-percentage of 0.969 (ahead of Quick’s 0.952).
Kesler, while he fails to score, was key on the Canucks’ first goal in Game 4, an Alex Edler blast from the point that tied the match at one in the early second period. Kesler started the play behind the net, ending up with the second assist on the goal, but his essential work was a big screen on Quick, which sullied the goaltender’s view as Edler’s slap shot sailed in.
Kesler has few, if any, visions of Canucks soaring down the wing and whipping in pucks on perfect shots on Quick.
“It has to be greasy,” said Kesler after practice on Saturday. “That’s the way you win hockey games, you win it by five feet around the net. You’ve got to go to the dirty areas to score. We did that last game and we got a great result.”
Kesler knows Quick a little bit from their time together on the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Quick was a backup and didn’t play. Kesler remembers a “pretty quiet” guy but says the solution is the same as for any goaltender.
“All the goalies are the same: you’ve got to take their eyes away. They’re so good at this level. If you get a clear shot, you might be able to beat ’em clean. This time of year, you score goals by being in front of the net, by chipping, by hacking, and getting the greasy ones.”
Even as L.A. won the first three games, Kings coach Darryl Sutter said on Saturday that he felt the team’s play in Game 4 was the best of the series, despite losing. He called Schneider the best player on the ice in Game 4 and said Vancouver nicely benefitted from the return of Daniel Sedin, a “superstar.”
Sutter wants better play out of numerous Kings, though he half-excused Jeff Carter, who he said is playing through injury (a hurt ankle) and had his best showing in Game 4.
“We still have guys that can play a lot better,” Sutter said Saturday before flying to Vancouver, remarks carried in a video on lakings.com.
How the Canucks begin Game 5 will also be intriguing.
The Canucks, in the regular season, were the best team in the NHL in the first period, scoring 81 (leading the league) and giving up just 46 (second-fewest). Against the Kings, Vancouver’s scored one in the first, and given up three.
In Game 4, especially, Vancouver’s opening frame was poor. It didn’t quite feel like the team’s season faced a harsh and humiliating end. Coach Alain Vigneault said the Canucks were somewhat stressed, a bit bowed by pressure. But the coach feels the Canucks’ strong play later in Game 4 indicates the team is poised for a big Game 5.
“I don’t think it was a matter of us coming out flat [in Game 4]” said Vigneault on Saturday. “It was more that we were a little bit tight because of what was at stake. And we didn’t handle that moment, that first period, quite the way we should of. ... We have to be better than we were the last game. We’ve got to come out better, handle the moment better, and I’m very confident that this group can do that.”
The Canucks once again are expected to bet on new/almost new line combinations to unlock the Quick puzzle, to resuscitate their own comatose offensive arsenal. Booth, for the second straight game, will be on the first line with the Sedins. Second-line centre Kesler is again joined by Alex Burrows and, for Game 5, Maxim Lapierre, making for quite the chippy (yappy!?) trio.
(Mason Raymond, wholly ineffective for weeks now, was demoted from the second line to the fourth line. Rookie Zack Kassian, who has seen little ice time on the fourth line, is likely not dressed for Game 5, replaced by tough guy Dale Weise.)
How Booth and the Sedins complement each other will be a major factor. After Daniel, and the first line in general, were slow in the first, they looked good in the later stages of Game 4. Henrik Sedin feels the force, and speed, Booth brings frees the twins. The line produced one goal in Game 4, even-strength midway through the second to give the Canucks the lead, a Henrik Sedin to David Booth to Kevin Bieksa for the goal.
“He [Booth]gave us time to get to openings,” said Henrik Sedin, “and he forced them to maybe overplay him a little bit more, and it opened up more room for Dan and me, behind their guys, so that was a big key.”