A year ago, the Vancouver Canucks benched Roberto Luongo in the middle of the playoffs. Last summer, they signed backup-turned-starter Cory Schneider to a big-money multi-year contract. A month ago, Vancouver almost traded Luongo for basically nothing to Toronto. Last weekend, Luongo gave up seven goals against the lowly Edmonton Oilers.
Tonight, Luongo will start Game 1 at home against the San Jose Sharks.
Welcome to Planet Canucks. Yet another normal day, sunny and spring outside Rogers Arena, roiling and confused inside. And, oh yeah, something seems amiss with Ryan Kesler.
Schneider, who practised again on Wednesday morning, will sit the game out, nursing an undefined and presumably minor injury. Schneider did most of the work at the game-day skate, and left the ice first: all indications he would get the start. And then…. Luongo.
“For me, it’s an opportunity,” said Luongo after the game-day skate. “I’m just excited to be playing some playoff hockey again.”
Schneider did not speak with reporters. Coach Alain Vigneault provided the diagnosis: “just not healthy enough right now.” On Tuesday, Schneider said he felt ready, adding, “It’s the playoffs. I want to find a way to play.”
While Luongo has a long resume of success, the absence of Schneider is without-doubt a blow to the Canucks, given his especially hot play in the past month, topped by a 3-1 win last week against the Chicago Blackhawks. The man who is supposed to start is not starting.
And beyond Schneider not starting, the backup Wednesday night will be Joe Cannata, a 23-year-old who has never played a National Hockey League game. Zero. Which would make for an exciting debut, if Luongo somehow was hurt, as fans saw on Tuesday night with Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom, waylaid by warm-ups.
Cannata feels just so appropriate on Planet Canucks. The team is indeed heavy with veterans but Cannata joins as another rookie, 20-year-old defenceman Frank Corrado, who plays his first playoff game, after his first three NHL games this past week. Corrado is in the third-defensive pairing, with journeyman Andrew Alberts who couldn’t get a crack at the lineup for the first third of the season. Keith Ballard, making $4.2-million a year, will watch in a suit. Don’t worry, he’s used to it.
And what of Kesler? The surprise Luongo news overshadowed intrigue of earlier in the morning: where is Kesler? The often-injured second-line centre did not skate with his team but he is expected to play on Wednesday night. Kesler also did not speak with reporters on Wednesday morning. Vigneault joked, “We have Kesler locked up in the back. We’re feeding him raw meat. The Beast will be ready tonight.”
The statement elicited laughs but Kesler’s absence is peculiar. The allusion to Kesler’s reputation in the playoffs two years ago, particularly in the second-round against Nashville, also highlights that he is not the hockey player he once was. Not even close.
The hard numbers, from behindthenet.ca. Measured on a 60-minute basis, this season Kesler has been on the ice for three goals scored for every four against. In his 2010-11 Selke year, it was three for, and two against. This is measured on even-strength play – and obviously this year is a small sample of games for Kesler. Still, look at driving play, shots. In 2010-11, it was 32 shots per 60 minutes of even-strength play with Kesler on the ice, and about 25 against. This year: 26 for, 29 against.
And that, more so than Luongo, is bad newss.
The puck drops at about 7:30 p.m. PT.