VANCOUVER — Because the topic had come up a couple of times recently, Alain Vigneault was asked Tuesday whether he believed in breaks, in bounces, in luck over the long haul. Or if he thought those were only crutches.
He gave the coachliest answer he could think of.
“I think the harder you work the more confident you get, and the more breaks you get,” said the Vancouver Canucks’ embattled bench boss. “And I believe this group is working extremely hard and things are going to fall into place.”
And then his team went and got outshot 15-3 in the first period by the St. Louis Blues. The Canucks touched the puck several times, mind you. They must have, because they won nine faceoffs. You just couldn’t particularly remember anything they’d done with it, except for that time Henrik Sedin fed brother Daniel and Daniel muffed the chance.
On the bright side, Cory Schneider — who made 32 saves, and was very good this night — shut the door on the Blues’ shooters in that period, and there was no harm done, other than to the fragile psyches of this hockey club which, by all outward appearances, had forgotten which end of the stick to use to try to put the little black round thing into the big white meshy thing.
You know the stats: they had scored more than two goals just once in eight games. They had lost 11 of 16, and on the season as a whole, had lost two more games than they’d won.
And then, it happened.
The wind shifted, the tide came in, the ice tilted.
It began, you might argue, with an absolute textbook kill of a Kevin Bieksa penalty toward the end of the first period, and when the second began, the 2011 Canucks suddenly leaped into the empty sweaters of the 2013 edition.
They skated. They dangled. They outshot the Blues 14-6.
Mason Raymond saucered a cross-ice pass to Jannik Hansen and the frequently Great Dane buried it, top-shelf, over St. Louis goalie Jake Allen’s right shoulder, 2:30 in.
Two minutes later, Henrik backhanded a pass from behind the net that had about a 1-in-100 chance of finding Daniel streaking — well, skating — in from the point, but the puck missed everything it might easily have hit en route, and Daniel blasted it home.
And seven minutes after that, Jordan Schroeder, who might not be able to ride Space Mountain because of the height requirement but who can skate like the wind, laid a nifty spin-around pass right on Dale Weise’s stick and Weise — who began the game as the fourth-line centre on a unit with Tom Sestito and Steve Pinizzotto that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in the East Coast League — deked Allen at high speed and lifted it over the goaltender’s flabbergasted frame for a 3-0 lead.
And then, as abruptly, it unhappened.
Stung by a pair of third-period collapses on the weekend, the Canucks played dump-it-out and fall back, inviting the Blues to add to their misery, and they nearly obliged.
On the way to outshooting the passive Canucks 12-2, two shots that were going to miss the net ended up behind Schneider — the first a point shot that went in off the torso of Jaden Schwartz, the second off Canuck defenceman Chris Tanev’s head or chest right onto the stick of Patrik Berglund, who had a wide open net with everyone else wondering where the puck went.
There was still 6½ minutes left at that point, and the here-we-go-again sentiment was running very high in Rogers Arena.
But thanks in part to a delayed penalty to Vladimir Sobotka, during which Hansen and Raymond and several associates cleverly killed fully a minute of clock time without giving away the puck, they were able to hang on and regain a share of the Northwest Division lead they had lost to Minnesota on Monday.
Beating the Blues, who had won five or six, was, if only temporarily, reassuring that they still had it in them.
Even in the chronically glass-half-empty world of sportswriting, the suggestion that the Canucks could conceivably miss the playoffs has been dismissed as just too dark, too absurd.
But Tuesday’s 3-2 win notwithstanding, it’s time to concede that Vigneault may not have been talking out the back of his neck in repeating, at every opportunity, that the path was going to be rugged, and the potholes hazardous.
“We’ve known since Day 1 that this was going to be a huge challenge,” the head coach said Tuesday, which is about 180 degrees removed from GM Mike Gillis’s observation a couple of months ago that he figured this Canuck team was as good as the one that made it to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Unless he reckoned that everybody else’s team was that good, too.
“Maybe other people did not know, or did not want to believe it, or did not see it,” Vigneault said, “but I think within our staff and players, we knew this was going to be a real big challenge. Other than not thinking that Anaheim was going to come out the way they are, everything else is what I and we expected, and we’re in a real fun battle right now.”
Fun must be in the eye of the beholder.
Miss the playoffs? It could still happen. Especially, it could happen if the team stays as presently constituted, and Gillis gets shut out at the trade deadline.
It could happen even if Ryan Kesler comes back, at some indefinite point, as (optimistically speaking) 70 per cent of the player he was two years ago, and bumps all the other centres down a notch, thus making the third and fourth lines look a little less like an assemblage of six farm-club forwards from a parent squad that doesn’t draft very well.
It could happen if there is no market for a goaltender trade, and the Canucks’ fourth or fifth best player, whichever goaltender you think that is, sits at the end of the bench on a given night — watching the other one play — wasted as an asset, and not helping the other guy get into any kind of a groove.
Of course, there’s also the other possibility: that the Canucks make a sudden recovery, win the division, get the No. 3 seed, and all this dire talk of the past month is dismissed as typical media overreaction.
It’s possible. There’s just not much to indicate it.
The Canucks are not, at the moment, an elite hockey club. They are a group of strivers, in a conference with a half-dozen teams just like them.
They lost Zack Kassian again Tuesday, probably an aggravation of his back injury during a wild first-period scrap with Chris Stewart, so they’re not getting any deeper.
“I believe we’re being tested as a group,” Vigneault said. “That should be evident to everybody.”
It is, Alain. It is.
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