Ten days ago, battling back the champion Boston Bruins in a feverish matinee on the road, the Vancouver Canucks displayed their Stanley Cup-winning potential.
Now, it feels like a distant memory, and the Canucks are back in so-so early-season form, struggling to conjure their best play, challenged by weaker opponents and often displaying a worrying lack of gusto.
Tuesday night, it started poorly. The Los Angeles Kings, often hapless this season, quickly took the lead, created numerous odd-man rushes and far outshot the home side in the first 10 minutes of the game, the second successive L.A.-area team to punch up the Canucks in Vancouver.
It ended badly, too, for the home side. The Canucks were outscored and outshot by the NHL’s lowest-scoring team, unable to really figure out one of the league’s best goalies, L.A.’s all-star Jonathan Quick.
After tying the game up at two in the third, Vancouver went down 3-2 in a shootout, Roberto Luongo giving up two of three chances compared with Quick’s two stops against three shooters.
Even with the shootout loss, Luongo, who stopped 39 of 41 shots during the game, was the Canucks best player.
“He [Luongo]has been unbelievable the past month and a half,” said captain Henrik Sedin after the game. “He keeps us in games and he was big tonight again.”
Sedin felt “battling back” was a positive but not enough to make up for the first frame.
“We gave up 3-on-2s, 2-on-1s, breakaways, because we didn’t make the right reads,” he said. “That’s on everyone, it’s on the forwards and on the defence.”
The loss hacked Vancouver’s record in its last nine games down to 4-3-2, an echo of its first 19 games, when it was 9-9-1.
Vancouver lost on a night when the top tier of the NHL – the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings – won their games. Vancouver slides down the league’s ledger, its 28-15-4 record resting heavily on a 15-3-1 run in November and December that lifted the team to the top of the NHL. On a points-percentage basis – Vancouver has played more games than teams such as Boston – the Cup-hopeful Canucks stand No. 8 in the 30-team league.
The first puck Vancouver managed to get past Quick came on the power play early in the second, with a Daniel Sedin wrist shot beating the L.A. netminder. Defenceman Alex Edler was credited with the first assist, but it was Ryan Kesler’s screen that was essential to the red light coming on – Quick didn’t seem to see the puck at all.
Quick, otherwise, saw most of everything Vancouver threw at him, further bolstering his Vezina candidacy and, thinking ahead, perhaps a starting role for the 25-year-old in 2014 in Sochi for the United States.
The Sedin goal tied the game at one. He had another chance on a backhand in front of Quick soon after, the puck delivered to him by a beautiful soft touch of a backhand from his older brother Henrik. But Daniel couldn’t get the puck off the ice and Quick gloved it.
“He’s very athletic,” said Vancouver defenceman Keith Ballard after the first period. “We need to get some pucks upstairs.”
Chris Higgins – one-third of the Canucks’ promising American Express line – still can’t find his rhythm. The 28-year-old from New York State battled through two infections in late 2011, one that swelled his foot and the other his hand. When the same thing happened to him last season in Florida, Panthers doctors first theorized the grotesque foot was a result of a snake bite, then guessed it might be a spider bite, before figuring out it was a staph infection.
Higgins had no points Tuesday night and has only one assist in his past eight games since returning to the ice. The second infection dealt his body a compounding blow so soon after the first. “I haven’t really felt like myself since I’ve come out of the hospital,” he said this week.
The situation has left Vancouver’s second line in some disarray, worsened by the absence of winger David Booth, who was back on the ice for only his second game Tuesday after missing 18 with a strained knee ligament.
Booth scored in the third to tie the game at 2-2 but was on the ice with the third line, the assist coming from winger Jannik Hansen, a beauty pass, from one side of the ice through the crease to an open Booth, who hammered it in and rejoiced, his first red-light-lighting tally since Dec. 4, the game before he was injured.
(Mason Raymond, who put in second-line time in Booth’s absence, was back on the line as Booth went to the third.) The shifting cast of characters on the second line has hampered centre Ryan Kesler, who has been unable to find the pace that put in 41 goals last season. His 12 this season will barely make half of last year’s tally.
Kesler’s relative lack of production was all the spark for a minor kerfuffle Monday and Tuesday, as some comments from coach Alain Vigneault about Kesler’s play were misinterpreted, the media (predictably!) to blame for the broken-telephone non-drama.