April 19, 2012

End Of An Era In Vancouver?

The Vancouver Canucks staved off elimination with a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

The Canucks looked destined to be swept after a less than inspiring first period. They got a couple of bounces in the second stanza, and though LA out-chanced them significantly, gained some confidence while playing with a lead. Cory Schneider was very strong in backstopping the Canucks to victory.

Daniel Sedin returned from concussion and looked better as the game went on, fighting the puck early but eventually re-establishing the Sedin cycle game with brother Henrik. That seemed to give the whole team a boost to see that old magic back. In a post season full of thuggery and controversy, the Sedins offered more of what NHL needs right now - beautiful hockey. They absolutely dominated for stretches, re-igniting the team and willing them to victory. By doing so they staved off elimination and perhaps they planted a seed of doubt that can cue a near impossible come back. Don't count on it, but it is a start.

The biggest story of the game was coach Alain Vigneault's decision to go with Cory Schneider over the highly paid Roberto Luongo in net. In the most important game of the year the message was clear: Cory Schneider is now the number one goaltender of the Vancouver Canucks. And the long term implications are potentially fascinating. Has the Roberto Luongo era come to an end in Vancouver?

Luongo is undoubtedly the greatest goaltender in franchise history. In Luongo's six seasons in Vancouver he has led the team to the playoffs five times, including leading the team to the brink of immortality when they reached the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final last season. He has been nominated for the Vezina twice and was even a finalist for the Hart Trophy in 2007. And though it was with Team Canada and not the Canucks, who can forget his performance at the Vancouver Olympics - winning four straight elimination games to capture Olympic gold under the most intense circumstances perhaps ever faced.

Luongo had a strong season this season, and was arguably the team's MVP in the regular season. Though he did not get the wins in games one and two, he was the team's best player. Yet the team needed a shake up, so through no fault of his own Luongo was pulled in favor of Schneider, who has become Luongo's equal at this moment in time.

Was this simply a decision based solely on winning the next game, by a coaching staff that may have their own jobs on the line? Or was this an organizational choice, part of a bigger plan to keep Schneider and move Luongo? Contractual realities will see one of the two goalies moved this summer. Schneider is younger. He will be cheaper, even with a healthy pay raise due this summer as he is a restricted free agent. His contract will not be nearly the albatross that Luongo's is. Shedding Luongo's contract will free up salary cap space to pursue help on the blue line and up front, and save the owners millions over the next decade.

Those are all valid business realities. But even from a hockey angle the Canucks may have decided Luongo needs to go, too. Luongo has become such a lightning rod in Vancouver that he is always - often unfairly - being blamed for goals and losses. It is not a healthy situation for him, or for the team. It is almost as if Luongo has become the immediate excuse when things do not go well. Schneider does not get the same goalie-graveyard treatment, at least not yet. When Schneider plays the accountability falls on the Sedins, Ryan Kesler or the defensemen. The team as a whole and the individual players all play better when held accountable. Luongo unfairly takes too much blame and by doing so takes others off the hook.

It will be an interesting summer undoubtedly. In the meantime the Kings hold a 3-1 series lead with game five not played until Sunday.

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