Ten minutes in, it looked like this: The Vancouver Canucks had solved all their recent problems, and everything going wrong for the Phoenix Coyotes had worsened.
Then it all started to fall apart on Wednesday night – and one of the best teams in the National Hockey League saw a poorly timed slump get uglier as the playoffs approach. Blowing a 2-0 lead, the Canucks went down 5-4, at home, to the Coyotes, with Phoenix scoring more than twice as many goals on Vancouver in 60 minutes than Phoenix had in three previous games versus Vancouver this season.
Two of the them came on the power play: The NHL’s worst power play (13.5 per cent after Wednesday) went two-for-two on Vancouver.
But don’t worry, Vancouver insists the ship of state is strong. The team has won just two of its last eight (2-4-2), with the slump coming during an extended home stand, yet the Canucks remain solidly in second in the Western Conference with 92 points, which also stands as third best in the NHL.
And, don’t forget, other top teams – looking at the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings – are having similar struggles. But, meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who welcome Sidney Crosby back Thursday night, are playing amazing hockey.
In this swirling milieu, captain Henrik Sedin speaks like a man who has won most everything there is to win in hockey, with his eye only on one last trophy. Losing to Phoenix does not jar that focus. With a gold medal, and trophies for most valuable player and NHL leading scorer at home, Sedin viewed the 5-4 loss as a step in the right direction, after an awful 4-1 loss to Montreal last Saturday.
The Canucks, Sedin believes, are a tinker or two away from top-flight form. And Vancouver took solace in the fact that it peppered 43 shots on Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, who played very well, and spent a significant amount of the night in the Coyotes’ end.
“We’re not playing at our best yet right now,” said Sedin after the game. “We won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, where it didn’t really matter either. For us it’s getting to a place where we feel good about our game, and feel confident going into the playoffs. It might take a game or so. We’re second in the conference. There’s a lot of expectations from the outside on this team, and I think we’re handling it good. We try to be on an even keel, don’t be too high or too low. That’s what fans and other people have to realize as well.”
Roberto Luongo, who played so well for four months, has had a so-so March, at best, and didn’t play especially well Wednesday. Spotty goaltending was compounded by Vancouver’s defence, which was also so-so at best – and that’s charitable – as Phoenix capitalized on odd-man rushes.
Words that critics would call excuses were used. The likes of defenceman Kevin Bieksa, after the game, called several of the Coyotes’ goals “lucky,” such as Gilbert Brule’s mark late in the second to put Phoenix up 4-3. Brule, crashing the net, Bieksa in hot pursuit (after himself leading a failed odd-man – three on one – rush himself moments earlier), a puck that sailed through the crease bounced off the Phoenix forward and went in.
But in Vancouver, the city of glass where brittle fans ever-more fear their team just doesn’t have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs, doubt reigned late Wednesday. “I don’t want to see Raymond in a Canucks uniform any more” one caller said of underperforming forward Mason Raymond, whose move to the first line with the underperforming Sedins didn’t produce results. Another caller said Henrik Sedin’s 13 goals this year is “a joke.” (It is Sedin’s first season with less than a point per game since 2007-08, the last time the Canucks missed the playoffs.) And, finally, a sports-radio host addressed those who voiced confidence, asking whether fans should just place “blind faith” in the team.
Slumping Vancouver had been hungry for the win, after two days of rest, to revive its form in good time for the playoffs.
But the visitors, Phoenix, needed the win a lot more, the Coyotes fighting to hold on to their place near the bottom of the top eight in the Western Conference, starting Wednesday one point ahead of four teams.