Last June, the vaunted firepower of the Vancouver Canucks offense died at the hands of the Boston Bruins' goaltender, Tim Thomas. Vancouver managed just eight goals in seven games and lost the Stanley Cup on home ice in Game 7.
On Sunday night, the Canucks offense - suffering a severe drought for the past two months - died at hands of the Los Angeles Kings’ goaltender, Jonathan Quick. Vancouver managed eight goals in five games and fell in a major upset in the first round, going down in the decisive Game 5 with just one goal scored, losing 2-1 in overtime.
L.A. forward Jarret Stoll put the stake in the heart, his wrist shot beating Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider less than five minutes into overtime.
Schneider was the last man in the Canucks’ locker room after the game, alone taking off his pads, stripping off tape, removing his skates.
“You realize, as you play more years in this league, you only get so many chances,” said Schneider, who yielded the winning goal on a laser shot from Stoll, who had stormed in on a two-on-one after Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis lost the puck.
“So, you can’t let them slip by, especially with a good year we had like this year.”
With the loss, Vancouver became the fourth out of the seven most recent regular-season champs that have gone one-and-out in the playoffs. Yes: a Presidents’ Trophy winner collapsing in the first round of the NHL playoffs has actually been the fate of the majority of teams that have topped the NHL regular season since the 2004-05 lockout.
Two years ago, the Washington Capitals lost in seven to the Montreal Canadiens, and the season before the San Jose Sharks fell in six to the Anaheim Ducks. The season after the lockout, the Detroit Red Wings lost in six to the Edmonton Oilers, with the Oilers then nearly winning the Stanley Cup.
The facts will be no consolation for Vancouver, the team or the fans. The Canucks, who 10 months ago were 60 minutes away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, are now poised for a long summer to chew over what went wrong.
“It just happened - so I’m sure it’s going to feel even worse tomorrow, when we get up and there’s nothing to do,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa after the game. “We didn’t play well enough. we don’t deserve to go on.”
Daniel Sedin, the star scorer who returned from concussion in Game 4, said much the same: “It doesn’t matter: you lose the seventh game of the finals or lose Game 5 in the first round, it’s devastating, both of them.”
For L.A., the win is a huge one for a team looking to build a long multiyear legacy. It is the first time the Kings are past the first round in more than a decade. Through the 2000s, the Kings missed six consecutive playoffs, and then lost in the first round the past two seasons.
“Any team you can knock off, it’s special,” said Kings hero Stoll. “It’s pride in your organization, your team, and your teammates. They’re a great team over there and it took a lot to beat them in five games and it definitely wasn’t easy.”
For Vancouver, the loss is an especially hard one, as the window to win a Cup with the current squad is closing. The Sedin twins turn 32 in September. A significant overhaul of the team could well come this summer, with long-time starting goaltender Roberto Luongo among the cornerstone players perhaps leaving town.
On Sunday night at Rogers Arena here, with the Canucks down three games to one against the Kings, what went wrong came late in the game. Vancouver was up 1-0 after two periods, Sedinery producing a power-play goal in the first – Daniel to Henrik to get a puck by the near-perfect Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.
Schneider, Vancouver’s goaltending understudy turned starter, was also excellent, holding a shutout into the third before an offensive push by the long-slumping Drew Doughty led to a Brad Richardson goal.
Giving up a lead after two periods and letting the Kings back in the game, and then through to victory, were emblematic of the Canucks’ stumbles in this series. Vancouver rarely gives up such leads. In more than 100 regular-season games going back to October of 2009, the Canucks only lost a single game in regulation after leading after two periods. That they could not hold it against the eighth-seeded Kings, with the season on the line, illustrates the missing deliver-when-it-counts oomph of hockey’s supposedly best team.
Henrik Sedin blamed the series loss on the first two games at home, which Vancouver botched, handing L.A. a big lead.
“If you’re going to give away the two first games, with penalties and a bad power play, it’s tough to come back,” said Sedin.”
The gutting loss presages major changes in Vancouver. Luongo, the Canucks starter in goal for six years before being replaced by Schneider in Game 3 of the L.A. series, seems certain to depart in a trade, one in which he would dictate terms because of his no-trade clause.
The fate of head coach Alain Vigneault is uncertain. Some are sure he will be fired with the ugly first-round showing, ending up behind the bench in Montreal. Vigneault’s exit, however, is certainly not guaranteed, given that the team imagines itself building a Detroit Red Wings-like franchise, one that does not fire coaches as a first response to failure.
Asked about his job security, the last question of a short five-minute press conference, Vigneault’s voice was near inaudible: “I’m not going to get into that tonight.”
To an earlier question, Vigneault talked about how competitive the NHL is, a theme he had often highlighted through this past season. In the playoffs, he pointed to the likes of Boston forced to seven against Washington, Phoenix and Chicago going to overtime in each of the five games in their series.
“It’s a tough league,” said Vigneault. “I mean, all the teams are good, all the teams are competitive. Every game, the momentum goes from one team to another. We’re a good team but L.A. is a very good team also. They played better than we did in this series.”
President and general manager Mike Gillis’s job will also be questioned, but again it is no certainty team co-owner and chairman Francesco Aquilini wants to clean house.
Reworking the roster is almost certain. Presuming Gillis remains in place, or even if he goes, the overhaul of the Philadelphia Flyers ahead of this season is a fresh example of a club whose roster significantly changed one season to the next. Of particular interest, Philly moved two players with huge contracts and got a lot back – enough to overcome the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round on Sunday.
There were three major Flyers moves last summer. Mike Richards, with his 12-year, $69-million (all currency U.S.) deal, was sent to the Kings, with Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn arriving in return. Jeff Carter, with his 11-year, $58-million contract, was shipped to the Columbus Blue Jackets (before moving to L.A.) for Jakub Voracek and a first-round pick who became Sean Couturier. (The four new Flyers produced more points this season than Richards and Carter did in 2009-10, when Philly went to the Cup. They signed free-agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
So, given that Richards and Carter, and their huge contracts, were moved for quality players in return, to say that Luongo’s 12-year, $64-million contract is bad-news anvil for Vancouver cannot be correct. The Canucks should be able to get something reasonable in return, and then if they consider moving a major offensive piece such as Ryan Kesler or Alex Burrows, the lineup could look significantly different for 2012-13.
Whether a new cast in Vancouver gets the team past the first round next spring, well, it’ll be a year before such answers are available. Right now, all Vancouver has is questions.