VANCOUVER - Lost amid the Royal Commission investigating whether Roberto Luongo should have been rescued from Saturday's meltdown in Edmonton and what happened when he wasn't – the kind of discussion, both passionate and trivial, that defines the fervor of our hockey market – is that the game that mattered to the Vancouver Canucks occurred in Los Angeles.
In Saturday's final National Hockey League game, the big, brawny Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings edged the San Jose Sharks 3-2 to move into fifth place in the Western Conference and a first-round playoff matchup against the equally bruising St. Louis Blues. The loss left the less-intimidating Sharks for the Canucks in a series that starts Wednesday in Vancouver.
While we're not sure what the Kings actually won by beating the Sharks, the result was a huge victory for the Canucks. Vancouver was cuffed aside by Los Angeles in five games in the opening round last season and preferred not to have to get back in the octagon right away for another round of brutal combat with the Kings.
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault last week described the moving targets of potential playoff opponents as “pick your poison,” and the Sharks certainly can be lethal to Vancouver's season. The Canucks did, after all, go 0-2-1 against the Sharks this year.
But San Jose, minus Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray, Jamie McGinn, Jamal Mayers and Ben Eager, is not the team it was two years ago. Of course, as we saw during this 48-game season, neither are the Canucks.
San Jose is a poison less toxic, although it should give the Canucks pause that while they're getting the opponent they wanted, so are the Sharks, especially if Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider's minor injury is major enough to keep him out of the lineup for Game 1.
Luongo has an injury, too: hurt feelings.
After showing admirable humility, dignity and patience during the soap opera that was his season, the untraded 34-year-old goalie was showered, dressed and gone without a word 12 minutes after the Canucks lost 7-2 to the Edmonton Oilers. Ordinarily, it takes Luongo that long to do his hair.
Clearly, he was upset. The Oilers put a touchdown on the board in the third period. Five of the six goals came during a 3½-minute binge that began at 13:17.
Luongo gave the puck away behind net on one goal, had the stick knocked from his hands by teammate Max Lapierre on another, and was generally helpless when the Canucks turned to holograms in the final minutes of a game so meaningless that key players Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison, Alex Edler, Alex Burrows, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin (except for one 22-second shift) were given the night off.
Could Vigneault have given Luongo a mercy hook during the Oilers' feeding frenzy and allowed minor-league callup Joe Cannata to join the chaos for his first few minutes in the NHL? Of course. But the unravelling of what had been a 2-2 game came so suddenly and so late that Vigneault chose to let the clock run out rather than make Luongo do the perp walk to the bench in potentially his final game as a Canuck.
Could Luongo have helped himself and played better as the dam burst? Sure.
Should he have hung with teammates after the game for the sake of optics and been accountable to the press? Probably. But he put a lot of goodwill in the bank for how he handled himself the last 13 months and if Luongo needed to spend a little of that currency Saturday, so be it.
The final score, like the Canuck lineup, was a joke.
The score doesn't matter. And until a week ago, Luongo's feelings/play/confidence wouldn't have mattered much, either.
But whatever Schneider did to himself during last Monday's 3-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks, it has become more likely by the day that it may be Luongo in goal at the start of the playoffs.
During Saturday's broadcast, CBC analyst Kelly Hrudey predicted a Luongo start, something Vigneault indicated before the game was possible.
Last week, Canuck general manager Mike Gillis said Schneider was “going to be fine for the weekend or the beginning of (next) week.” Were the series starting Tuesday, there seems little chance Schneider could play.
Wednesday? Every day counts as he recovers and if Schneider makes it on to the ice for practice this morning, he should be able to start 56 hours later.
But if it is Luongo who skates out for the anthems and Game 1, should anyone really be surprised given the plot twists and general strangeness of the last year?
Luongo beat the Sharks in five games two years ago, outplaying San Jose goalie Antti Niemi in what amounted to a shootout series. The Sharks still have their shooters: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.
So much has happened since then to Luongo, who always seems to be news here. Even in a meaningless game at the end of April.
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