In the city the local puckheads call Smashville, the announcer on Friday night let out a bellow as the puck was set to drop: “The battle begins.”
It was a promotion of what was to come, perhaps, a prediction maybe. But what ebbed forth was hockey at its worst, a tired grind devoid of excitement and beauty. The battle, as it was dubbed, was between two of the Western Conference’s best in the standings, the Nashville Predators and the visiting Vancouver Canucks, but highly ranked obviously does not equal excitement. The night mercifully ended after 60 minutes, the Canucks winning 1-0, their second victory in two nights.
The win lifts Vancouver to 10-3-4, and even if the team’s work of late feels imperfect, the Canucks have lost just one match in regulation in their past 10 games. Only two other teams in the NHL can say that, the two ahead of Vancouver in the West, Anaheim and Chicago. Nashville dropped to 8-5-5.
The Canucks, as they did last winter, have found a way to win, and it’s spelled g-o-a-l-t-e-n-d-i-n-g. The work on Friday night was Roberto Luongo’s, the backup who scored his second shutout of the year as he improved to 5-0-3. The Canucks are now 2-0-1 on this challenging road trip. Cory Schneider was in net for the first two, and the trip in full sees four games in six nights, the final one coming on Sunday in Detroit.
Luongo, as he has been demoted to backup, is playing some of the best hockey of his life. He spent the lockout working one-on-one with his goaltending mentor, Francois Allaire, trying to reduce his tendency to lunge after pucks, hammering through drills, repetition, repetition, repetition. The results are amazing. Luongo’s goals-against-average is now down to 1.45 – the best in the NHL among goalies with regular starts -- and his save-percentage is 0.941, No. 2 in the NHL. Luongo’s unreal even-strength save-percentage of 0.960 leads the league.
“Right now, I feel big in the net,” said Luongo after the game, adding that a key change in his game has been “just a quick reaction off the first save, that I’m getting to a rebound without having to look at a rebound and then reacting -- it’s just reacting right away.”
The biggest event of note for Vancouver, in the absence of vibrant hockey, was the loss of defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who departed the ice early in the second after getting cracked by Nashville’s Hal Gill. Bieksa was diagnosed with a lower-body injury. The loss left Vancouver playing with five defencemen for more than half the game.
After the game, it was revealed Bieksa had tweaked his groin, and it’s not clear if he will miss any games. Andrew Alberts, who hasn’t played this year, would be in the lineup otherwise, said Vigneault after the game. He credited his five D-men who carried the load after Bieksa was gone.
“Some games you’ve got to grind it out,” said Vigneault in the hallway outside the locker room.
Even if the whole thing Friday night was lacklustre, the evening really was a showdown between Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Luongo, old rivals and again this year two of best in the business, each with goals-against averages lower than two, and near-identical save percentages.
The game was comatose from the start. The Canucks conjured basically nothing in the first period, three shots, none of which challenged Rinne, the 30-year-old Finn. Luongo, a backup for the first time in his life at 33, took a bunch of blasts, including some poppers from Shea Weber, but it was dead even, and mostly dead boring, through the end of one.
A worrisome premonition emerged of a 0-0 game ending in a shootout, which was barely avoided. The temper tilted in the second, somewhat, as the Preds failed to threaten Luongo, while the Canucks had a few moments of hope, David Booth among those.
Come the third, a red light, mercifully, was finally lit – by an unlikely man, Dale Weise, the fourth-liner who scored his first of the year. Midway through the final frame, Maxim Lapierre whipped in a shot at a fairly hard angle from the faceoff circle, but it banked off a defender’s skate in front of Rinne and bounced out the other side, where Weise was wide open to pop it into the open net, Rinne having no chance.
In the crease, Rinne and Luongo have a lot in common and are at different moments of their careers, even if they are just three years separated in age. They both carry big-time contracts, but Rinne’s shine hasn’t worn out in this city of 1.6 million, about two-thirds the size of Vancouver and its suburbs. Rinne has been deemed a franchise cornerstone, alongside Weber, just like Luongo was a couple of years back, before the ascension of Schneider and Luongo’s new life in the purgatory of will be traded some day, eventually (probably).
Rinne is in the first year of a seven-year, $49-million (U.S.) deal and is playing his best hockey. He struggled to start, going 0-2-3, but found his rhythm in a big way, booking three shutouts this month, which ties him for the league lead with Phoenix’s Mike Smith. Rinne was great again on Friday night, and only lost by a bad-luck bounce.