It is as close as you are going to get to a controlled experiment in the million-multiple-variables realm of the National Hockey League – two teams, largely the same as last year, save for one obvious change: they traded coaches.
New York ejected the highly voluble John Tortorella, and Vancouver, looking for a firebrand, signed him up. Vancouver fired the effective-yet-somewhat-placid Alain Vigneault, and New York, looking for sanity after shouting, welcomed him.
Round One of the head-to-head portion of the experiment in contrasting coaching styles ended decisively in favour of the firebrand – even if there were no actual fireworks, profanities or other hallmarks of Tortorella’s past. In the last outing of the Canucks preseason on Thursday night in Vancouver, the home team, while badly outshot 41-20, skated by the Rangers 5-0.
Call it: Happy birthday, Sedins. And subtitle it: Roberto Luongo’s (modest) revenge. And pin on an asterisk: A non-regal night for Henrik Lundqvist.
For Vancouver, scrapping to learn new ways to play under Tortorella, the win was the first sure sign, this September, that the team has cohesion and punch and can be reasonably counted on to contend this season, after a couple weeks of relative disarray. It’s not like Vancouver seemed doomed to struggle this year but there really had been few tangible signs, until Thursday, they are poised to succeed.
"We've got some more work to do," declared Tortorella after the game, saying Luongo carried the club and that he wanted to see more from the Canucks in their play away from the puck and along the boards, defensive elements where the team was "godawful" at points Thursday.
The twins – whose contract-extension talks amble along as regular season approaches – turned 33 on Thursday, Henrik the team captain six minutes older than his brother Daniel. To celebrate, Henrik scored twice, the first and third goals, and Daniel added an assist (his first preseason point) – propelling the Canucks ahead through the first several periods.
At the other end of the ice, Luongo was steady and strong wire-to-wire, handling a number of challenges from the Rangers with calm and keeping the attack safely at bay throughout. He made significant stops all along the way. Among other strong stops, Luongo twice stymied solid chances from Rangers defenceman John Moore in the third, once with his glove, the other with the blocker.
It may only be a shutout in the preseason but with Vigneault behind the opponents’ bench, Luongo could perhaps take some satisfaction in his performance against the coach who had sent him spiralling into a year-plus of professional purgatory, promoting Cory Schneider in Vancouver at Luongo’s expense.
Speaking of the redhead who was the starting netminder in these parts last season, his preseason play in New Jersey is yet more evidence why the Vancouver Canucks saw him as their long-term starter, until forces of the financial NHL universe squeezed their hand at the draft. Schneider is playing unbelievable hockey: he has yielded just one goal (on a power play) in three games, stopping 79 of 80 pucks – for a ridiculous save-percentage of 0.988 and an even-more-ridiculous goals-against-average of 0.376.
Back in Vancouver, beyond the resounding and reassuring nature of the victory, the team has to be pleased with the scrappy nature of some of the goals. Later in the first period, with the Canucks up 1-0 on an early Henrik Sedin power-play mark, Ryan Kesler and Jannik Hansen were fighting for control of the puck down low along the boards in the Rangers end. Hansen, with control, carried the puck back a bit and fed an open rookie, Frank Corrado, whose slapshot managed to get back an unsure Lundqvist – who, playing two periods, stopped just 12 of 17 shots, un-King-like.
The goal for Corrado, his first point of the preseason, may slightly bolster his case to make the team but a more-likely rookie to make the roster seems to be Hunter Shinkaruk, who scored his second of the preseason on Thrusday. Shinaruk, and fellow 2013 rookie Bo Horvat, also got a boost earlier in the day with positive comments from team president Mike Gillis.
After the game, Tortorella announced Corrado had in fact not made the cut and was dispatched to the American Hockey League in Utica. Make a bet to see Corrado back in Vancouver at some point in the season, if not for a long portion of it. Brendan Gaunce, a rookie who did not dress Thursday, was assigned back to his junior squad, in Belleville, where he needs to work on the "tempo and pace" of his game, Tortorella said. As for Shinkaruk, "He's certainly made a case."
For Henrik’s second goal, he had the easy tap-in of a rebound, one that resulted from the firepower of Alex Edler from the point and a savvy tip of the puck in front by Alex Burrows.
Another power-play late in the second put the Canucks up 4-0. Sedin won the offensive-zone draw and the puck bounced back towards Kevin Bieksa, who made a stick-extended lunge for the puck, to keep it in the zone and get it over to Edler. Another popper from the Swede resulted and, en route, the puck was deflected by Kesler.
The Canucks power-play finished at two-for-six on the night, easily the best of the preseason during which the team had previously gone one-for-12. Tortorella, before the morning skate on Thursday, said he felt confident about the power play, without providing any reason, and Thursday night suggested, maybe, he had seen something not obvious to other observers.
"It feels like a different power play than last year," said Henrik after the game, and added, joking, "I quit celebrating birthdays."
It was a good night for Vancouver on a sunny autumn day that began with smiles – Tortorella shaking hands and chatting amicably with New York reporters, and Vigneault visiting with the likes of Gillis before the morning skates. On the ice at night was exactly what the Canucks were looking for. Hey, even David Booth, in his first game back since mid-March, nearly scored, on a two-on-one shorthanded, Burrows feeding him the puck and Booth getting it by backup Martin Biron, but the puck connected with the post.
There’s always next time – when it starts to count. First, though, four full practices between now and next week and an opening-night date on the road in San Jose on Thursday, picking up exactly where Vancouver left off last year – but this time it is a beginning and not an ending.