There was stunned silence and disbelief in the Vancouver Canuck dressing room as players digested their first-round upset playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings Sunday.
Defenceman Dan Hamhuis tried to explain how he lost the puck at his own blueline, allowing Jarret Stoll to score the winning goal at 4:27 of overtime in a 2-1 L.A. victory.
Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin showed their class by trying to find answers to how the team with the best record in the NHL lost in five games to the eighth-seeded Kings. Centre Ryan Kesler sat for a long time with his head in his hands, then quietly left. Conspicuous by his absence was goaltender Roberto Luongo. The best goalie to wear a Canuck uniform has probably played his last game in Vancouver.
The early exit was a shocking end to the Canucks season. From the moment Vancouver opened training camp in September, coaches and players had a single goal. Win one more playoff game than last year and bring the Stanley Cup home.
“Nobody envisioned this,’’ said coach Alain Vigneault. “We came here on day one with a plan. We wanted to take the steps one at a time. Unfortunately this first step we weren’t good enough.’’
There are plenty of reasons why the Canucks weren’t good enough.
In five games of the best-of-seven series against the Kings, Vancouver’s power play scored just three times in 21 chances and allowed two shorthanded goals in one game. The Canucks managed just eight goals. Players like Kesler, David Booth and Mason Raymond didn’t score. Usually reliable defenceman Alex Edler suddenly made rookie mistakes.
The Canucks dug themselves a hole by losing the first two games at home. “If you give away two games it’s tough to win four out of five,’’ said captain Henrik Sedin. “We didn’t score enough. They had a great goalie and played tight defence. They scored enough to win.’’
Los Angeles exposed Vancouver’s soft side. The Kings showed more speed and aggression. L.A.’s forecheck created turnovers. Goaltender Jonathan Quick stymied the Vancouver shooters.
The loss will send vibrations through the Canuck organization.
Expect coach Alain Vigneault to be fired. It’s unlikely Raymond will be back. Defenceman Sami Salo may have played his last game as a Canuck. The biggest change will be in net. Ever since Luongo arrived in Vancouver six years ago, he has been a polarizing figure to Canuck fans. At first he was praised as the saviour, the man who would end years of frustration and bring the Cup to Vancouver.
After a couple of playoff meltdowns, most notably in last year’s final against the Boston Bruins, Luongo become the devil to many of the Canuck faithful. They point to him as the reason Vancouver still hasn’t won a championship. TransLink president Ian Jarvis might get more likes on Facebook.
Vigneault’s decision to bench Luongo and place Vancouver’s playoff fate in Cory Schneider’s catching glove signalled a changing of the guard in the Canuck crease.
The Canucks will make a decision this summer over whether to keep Schneider, who becomes a restricted free agent, or Luongo, who is locked into a 12-year, $64-million contract. Schneider is seven years younger. He’s moving into his prime. At 33, Luongo may be nearing his best-before date.
Luongo is an imposing figure in the Canucks dressing room. Depending on the day he can be sullen, funny, withdrawn, engaged, arrogant or humble. Sometimes, when facing a group of reporters, he talks in cliches and looks like he’d rather be in a dental chair. One-on-one he can be gracious and thoughtful with his answers. Over the years Luongo learned to deal with living under the microscope in a hockey-fixated city.
“You learn to handle things,’’ Luongo said last week. “I’m much better at it now than when I got here.’’
Former GM Brian Burke once described Vancouver as a goalie graveyard. Dan Cloutier, Kevin Weeks and Garth Snow were all buried here.
Schneider will come to camp next year as the Canucks’ new saviour, the man now capable of leading Vancouver on the road to the Stanley Cup. He’d better be careful. A lot of other goaltenders have tripped along that same path.
Jim Morris is a veteran sports reporter who has covered hockey for 30 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.