Canucks shut out Oilers to clinch Presidents' Trophy

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin, centre, celebrates his goal against the Edmonton Oilers with teammates Kevin Bieksa, left, and Alex Burrows during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Vancouver on Saturday. (BEN NELMS)

His first NHL shutout came at the end of the 20th century, Dec. 27, 1999, his rookie season with the New York Islanders, a 34-save performance against a team that would years later become a bete noire, the Boston Bruins.

On Saturday night, on Hockey Night in Canada, with the Presidents’ Trophy on the line, Roberto Luongo didn’t have much work - just 17 shots from the lowly Edmonton Oilers - but stopped them all. The 33-year-old Vancouver Canuck became the 16th goaltender in National League Hockey history to reach 60 shutouts, joining a rarefied group made up of almost wholly of Hall of Famers.

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The night ended with a standing ovation, huge cheers, that began with one minute left in the game. It was a big end to a big season- and now there is only one thing left for the Vancouver Canucks to win.

And so it was, even as Vancouver triumphed, minds were on next week, the first round of the playoffs, on June, the cup finals, and last June, when Vancouver blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads against Boston and went down on home ice in Game 7.

“We’re better prepared to face the journey," said Luongo after the game in the locker room. "Once you’ve been there, you know what it takes. You know, emotionally, what it takes to get all the way to the end.”

Vancouver’s 3-0 win over Edmonton - its seventh consecutive home-ice W - lifted the team to the top of the NHL table for a second-consecutive regular season, wresting the Presidents’ Trophy from the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues.

Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin had his wry humour on happy display after the game. "Pretty good for a terrible season," Sedin joked, alluding to the often negative tone of the press coverage of the Canucks.

"No one," he continued, "has really looked at this regular season as our main goal. And it hasn’t been. We know it’s not going to matter on Wednesday" - when the playoffs begin.

The opening for Vancouver to snatch the Presidents’ Trophy came after the New York Rangers blew its season-ender against the Washington Capitals, losing 4-1 at home, which lifted the Caps to No 7 in the Eastern Conference to face the Boston Bruins in the first round, with the Ottawa Senators taking on New York.

After the final horn sounded in Vancouver, the last game of the NHL regular season went to overtime in California. The San Jose Sharks, playing at home, were down 2-1 but won 3-2 against the Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks take seventh in the Western Conference, and will play the Blues in the first round; Vancouver faces L.A., likely to be scheduled for Wednesday. The Canucks were 2-1-1 against the Kings this season, and in the 2010 playoffs beat the Kings 4-2 in the first round, after falling behind 2-1.

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, as he has throughout this season, spoke of the top-to-bottom strength among teams in the West, stating that even though L.A. is an eighth seed, each opponent this spring will be formidable.

"Anybody that was able to battle their way into the playoffs in our conference is a team that going to have a chance at the Stanley Cup, that’s how competitive our conference is," Vigneault said after the game.

(On the lighter side of things, an unknown prankster had put up a note about Mason Raymond - who missed the Edmonton game because he was with his wife, who was giving birth. The prankster noted that Raymond had chosen to name his newborn son Alain, after the coach, which in fact was not the case, since the child had not yet been born as of the game's end. Vigneault smiled: "I thought it was a good way to get on the power play.")

Vancouver pressed from the very first moment on Saturday night but weren’t able to crack a puck past Edmonton goaltender Devan Dubnyk. The breakthrough moment came with about four minutes left in the second, with the Canucks connecting on a power play, a rare event in the past three months.

An Alex Edler slap shot started the sequence. Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows dug at the rebound in front of Dubnyk, and Burrows got it out to the left to a wide-open Henrik Sedin. The Canucks captain, at a sharp angle, popped the puck high for the 1-0 lead, his first goal in almost two months, the last coming also against Edmonton.

In the third, David Booth put one home, on the power play. It snapped a long 10-game pointless streak for Booth, and provided the Canucks some hope their power play is being wrestled from hibernation. The goal sparked the renewal of a chant from the second period among fans at Rogers Arena: “We want the cup.”

Luongo - not content with a shutout - notched an assist on the play, his first of the season.

The last team to win consecutive Presidents’ trophies was the Detroit Red Wings, taking the title the season before and after the 2004-05 lockout. The Dallas Stars won in 1997-98 and 1998-99.

The value of the Presidents’ Trophy seems to waver, depending on who’s answering, and in what context. All teams and players easily declare that a home-ice edge through the playoffs is a wanted advantage but the title obviously guarantees nothing come spring. Of 25 winners, 10 - 40 per cent - have made the final, and seven - 28 per cent - have won.

A looming question for the Canucks, cloaked in secrecy, is the status of their No 1 goal scorer, Daniel Sedin, out since March 21 and missing the season’s last nine games with a concussion after Chicago’s Duncan Keith cracked an elbow into his head. The Canucks, on the record, have said they are hopeful Sedin is back for the first round- but with the huge asterisk of one-never-knows with concussions. One report Saturday said Sedin was skating privately, and near ready for the springtime rodeo, while another report stated Sedin isn’t yet skating, which would mean seeing two Sedins in Game 1 of the first round is unlikely.

With the team performing well on almost all fronts, the Canucks’ long-flailing power play remains the one glaring question - the slump is near three months deep now, though Saturday’s showing was a bit of good news. Still, in the last 100 opportunities, the Canucks have converted only about 10 per cent of the time, which has dragged their power-play down to 19.6 per cent for the season (ahead of the Edmonton game), down sharply from about 25 per cent in December, and last season’s league-leading 24.3.

Vancouver did power to a second Presidents’ Trophy, despite the poor power play, but in last year’s playoffs, the man advantage mattered a lot for the Canucks as they drove to Stanley Cup. Playing five-on-five hockey last spring, the team that was 60 minutes away from hoisting the cup was scored on more than it scored, a for-against ratio of 0.88 at even-strength.

For Edmonton, the team misses the playoffs of a sixth consecutive season- the rebuild continues. Their youngest star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who turns 19 next Thursday, feels the team made significant progress this year and expects to make the playoffs next season. In a year-end interview with the Edmonton Sun, Nugent-Hopkins said: “The goal is to win a Stanley Cup in the next few years.” Nugent-Hopkins ends his rookie season at 52 points, tied with Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado who played about 20 more games.

The Oilers end the year as the second-worst NHL team, with 76 points, better than their last-place 62 points last season.

Vancouver’s early press saw the home team outshoot Edmonton 9-0 in the first five minutes. The pressure eased but Edmonton managed little in the way of a challenge to Luongo, just five shots in the first frame compared with Vancouver’s 17. The Canucks’ push wasn’t able to convert on three power-play opportunities - a not-good situation Vancouver still doesn’t seem to really have an answer for - and goalie Dubnyk was steady against all comers.

In one solid stop, with half-a-minute remaining in the opening period, Samme Pahlsson drove the offensive zone and flicked a pass over to David Booths on the boards, who took a quick snap shot that a still-driving Pahlsson deflected in the slot - but Dubnyk delivered the stop.

Among individual Canucks, all-star defenceman Edler reached 50 points for the first time in his career.

Defenceman Kevin Bieksa, after his assist on the Booth goal, rose to 44 points on the season, his best ever (though some might argue that has come at a defensive coast, as Bieksa was +12 before the Edmonton game, compared with +32 last year, when he had half the offensive output).

Henrik Sedin, whose own output has fallen off this year, still led the NHL in assists for the third-consecutive year, with 67 this season, 75 last year and 83 during his leading-scorer campaign in 2009-10.

And, finally, Roberto Luongo. Often maligned, Luongo has experienced ebbs and flows typical for all goalies but his seem to attract far more harsh attention than most, compounded by the fact his backup, Cory Schneider, has put up an amazing season. Luongo’s, meanwhile, was quite strong, though not great. Before the Saturday night shutout, Luongo had a goals-against average of 2.46, better than his career average of 2.52, and a save percentage of 0.919, an exact match of his career average. Saturday was his 31st win of the year, marking the seventh consecutive year with 30-plus wins.

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