This week at Rogers Arena, there is an extended parade of desperate hockey teams. It has not, however, made for much in the way of entertaining hockey.
Four of the six teams in the incredible crunch of Western Conference clubs scrapping for a playoff position find themselves with dates on the road against the mighty Vancouver Canucks (who are, critics insist, far less mighty than they appear at first glance).
Los Angeles showed first, on Monday, lost 1-0, and slipped to ninth in the West from eighth.
Colorado, on Wednesday night, was the second guest, arriving in Vancouver standing 10th in the West, with fewer games to play than its rivals. And the Avalanche hadn’t scored a win against the Canucks in regulation time since October, 2009, Vancouver going 14-0-2 in the 16 games since.
There’s always next year. Losing 1-0 to Vancouver, Colorado’s futility against the Canucks extended evermore, and the Avalanche’s playoff hopes dwindled substantially. The Canucks, carrying the 1-0 lead into the third, extended their absolute dominance with the lead after two frames, now 101 consecutive games without a loss in regulation (96-0-5).
Next up in the parade, the Dallas Stars Friday, and the Calgary Flames Saturday. Maybe desperate hockey teams will eventually make for some electric hockey. Vancouver fans are oh-for-two this week, even as their hockey team is 2-0.
The Colorado game was another production of the latest iteration of Canucks’ hockey: Very little offence, outshot by the opponent (Avs 43 - Canucks 22), strong defence, and superb goaltending. Add it up, and it equals a win.
Ten minutes into the game, Vancouver had a single shot. Thirty-five in, it had a dozen. Even Chris Higgins’s breakaway shorthanded goal, near the end of the first on a precision pass from Samme Pahlsson, didn’t feel particularly amazing, as a basic wristshot easily went in blocker-side on Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov.
“We only care about the wins, and we got it," said Higgins after the game. "Obviously we’re going to have to score probably a couple more goals, down the stretch in the playoffs. I think it’s a testament that we can win these games, are comfortable playing these games, where it’s tight right till the final buzzer.”
The mostly dull evening marked the 400th consecutive sellout at Rogers Arena, going back a decade, the longest in hockey, and one of the longest in pro sports. But even while the expensive tickets are paid for, many seats in the lower bowl were empty. Vancouver fans, like the city’s hockey players, have their eyes firmly ahead to the playoffs.
Vancouver backup goalie Cory Schneider had another excellent outing, scoring his fifth shutout of his career. Expect to see him some more before the playoffs: he started three of the season’s last seven games a year ago, providing starter Roberto Luongo some rest ahead of the springtime rodeo.
There has been some chatter this week among hockey pundits in Vancouver about whether Schneider might be the better starter for the playoffs, ahead of Luongo, who is great, but at times erratic. The pundits cite Schneider's impressive statistics, stronger than Luongo's, though registered in half the number of starts. Schneider, who is a restricted free agent after this season, dismissed talk his performances would usurp Luongo.
“We both respect the heck out of each other, and cheer each other on," said Schneider after the game. "Lu’s played great the last three games, and not to mention the entire year, basically. He’s clearly the guy who’s going to start it. If it’s necessary for me to hop in at some point, then so be it.”
In the third period, when Colorado showed some last-minute life, Vancouver’s offence delivered excellent defence. Early on, winger Alex Burrows made a diving, swinging poke check to clear the puck from the Vancouver zone. Near the midway point, winger David Booth swiftly skated back to snatch a pass that was about to set up a beauty scoring opportunity for Colorado.
Colorado, with the loss, remains in 10th in the West, as Calgary in 11th was shut out, at home, by L.A. Both the Avs and Flames could well be done for.
The Avs, their coach Joe Sacco said, “left everything on the ice. It’s a frustrating loss for everybody.”
In the constant flux of the Western Conference table, the Kings’ win not only put them past Phoenix but in fact lifted them to seventh. It happened as Dallas beat Edmonton, to send the Stars to third with the lead in the Pacific Division, as the San Jose Sharks lost to Anaheim and fell back to eighth.
For Vancouver, its No. 2 perch in the West is assured, and the Presidents’ Trophy remains within reach, as the Canucks’ 103 points put the team just two points behind New York and St. Louis. Yet the critics are deeply uneasy. The latest crisis: the team isn’t scoring goals. Last year, Vancouver led the league, with 3.15 goals a game. Production is 2.93 this season, which ranks seventh - but the team’s output has faded in the past several months. In the last six games, Vancouver’s scored seven in regulation. Captain Henrik Sedin, with 13 goals, hasn’t scored in more than two months and is on pace for his lowest total in five years. Ryan Kesler, hampered by injury early in the year, has about half the goals of last season. Leading goal getter Daniel Sedin is out indefinitely with a concussion.
When asked whether it was better to win 1-0 or 4-3, Henrik Sedin was quick with a simple answer: "If you win, it's perfect." Still, he insisted, "I know we're going to score goals, eventually."
At the end, wins count for as much as they always have. And while it’s often not fun to watch, Vancouver president and general manager Mike Gillis warns this is the new normal. This week he said his trade-deadline moves were to adapt to the latest iteration of the NHL, low scoring, grinding, not unlike the league before the lockout.
“We’re going to have to learn to win games 1-0 all the time, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Gillis told Team 1040 radio on Tuesday. “There’s not going to be a lot of goal scoring.”