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It's understandable that Vancouver Canuck fans are freaking out a little bit. The team has a 40-year history without conquering Lord Stanley, and after two great games on home ice, we were all dreaming of coming home for Game 5 with either the Stanley Cup or a 3-1 series lead. But now that it's 2-2 and Luongo has looked fragile and the power play has been listless and the momentum has swung in favour of the Bruins, it's no time to jump ship. The series is still there for the taking, and there's no reason to think Vancouver doesn't have the moxy to overcome this adversity. After all, nobody wins it all without going through some tough times. But let's not sugarcoat it. There's a lot to feel miserable about when your team is outscored 12-1 in two of the most important games in franchise history. We can start with the fact that Bobby Lou has given up 12 goals on 58 shots for a woeful .793 save percentage — numbers that are eerily reminiscent of the Chicago series when he was shredded for 10 goals on only 40 shots in Games 4 and 5 for an even uglier .750 save percentage. The question heading into Game 5 is whether Luongo can regain his composure and confidence. It's a question Vigneault will no doubt be asking himself right up to game time on Friday. Unlike the Chicago series, though, I don't think there's any reason to consider putting Cory Schneider between the pipes. As Alain Vigneault has already stated, "Louie is going to be fine. He's one of the best goaltenders in the league. We've got a lot of trust and faith in him…in his ability to play well." On the other hand, it must be said that Vancouver could have won both games in Boston if Tim Thomas had been in their net. The Canucks out-shot Boston in both games, and they carried the play in the first period of both games. Had they managed to put an early one past Thomas in either game, we're probably not talking about Luongo. In Game 4, unable to score early on, the snowball was put in motion by a pair of bad breaks when Edler's stick broke (leading to a seeing-eye shot from Andrew Ference) and Kesler re-directed a Mark Recchi pass past Luongo. But the fact is that after a couple fluke goals, Luongo has made very few big saves, while Thomas has been rock solid. This is why Luongo gets so little credit when Vancouver wins and a lot of blame when they lose. During a six-week stretch against Chicago (Game 7), Nashville, San Jose, and Boston (Games 1 and 2), Vancouver was the better team and Luongo was part of the equation. But it would be hard to argue that Luongo has stolen a game for Vancouver in these playoffs. Either way, six weeks of solid goaltending is nothing to sneeze at. And then, all of a sudden, after a couple bad bounces, he's playing as if shell-shocked and his mental fortitude is once again a big-time concern. Of course, Vancouver has plenty of other culprits. The Sedins have played decent 5-on-5 hockey, but haven't been scoring on the power play. Kesler hasn't been playing like the beast he was against the Predators. As a group, the defense hasn't been adding much to the offense, while the forwards haven't supplied enough traffic in front of Thomas or produced enough second chances. Finally, lady luck seems to be on Boston's side. But as Tommy Larscheid would point out, "you've gotta be good to be lucky, and lucky to be good". Having success begins with trusting your keeper to make a few clutch saves when the defense breaks down. And that's not happening right now. In the first period of last night's game, Vancouver out-shot Boston 12-6. Boston had two quality scoring chances. The first came on a Rich Peverley breakaway. On the play, Peverley made no deke or fake. He skated in and fired a wrist shot right at Luongo, who initially had his stick covering the five-hole, only to inexplicably remove it when the shot was released, thereby opening the door to the back of the net. Sure, it was a defensive breakdown, but it was a very makeable save. The second scoring chance came in the closing minutes of the period when Michael Ryder undressed Christian Ehrhoff and snapped a wrist shot short-side on Luongo that, despite a tight angle, rang off the post. Two days after the 8-1 debacle, you could tell Luongo wasn't sharp, and any team, no matter how confident and cohesive, will lose energy and focus when they're wondering if their keeper is rattled. As any Canuck fan knows, if Luongo's mind isn't sharp, neither is his technique; and he's not an athletic scrambler who can overcome poor technique and a frantic mindset. On the second goal, with Vancouver still carrying the play (not by a long shot, mind you), Ryder stepped over the blue line and fired a 60-foot wrist shot that found the back of the net. Yes, the puck took a slick deviation off Sami Salo's stick at the release point, causing the puck to dip slightly. But an NHL goaltender has to make that save. It's one thing if the deflection happens right in front the net and you have no time to react, but from that distance, Luongo had the time to pick it up, but his glove remained a foot higher than the puck's trajectory. If he's locked in and focused, it's easy pickings. On the third goal by Brad Marchand, there was mass confusion between Ballard and Bieksa. Ballard had a nightmare of a game, and after losing the puck once, he was tripped behind the net, which led to Marchand finding the puck on his stick right in front of the net. Again, Vancouver needed a save to keep the game within reach, and they didn't get it. By 4-0, Vigneault had no choice but to pull Luongo — which he also should have done after the second period in Game 4 to save Luongo from digging the puck out of his net four more times. In any case, heading into Game 5, Canuckleheads near and far will be wondering whether Schneider will see any more action in these playoffs. Stability in goal is a prerequisite to winning the Stanley Cup, and my guess is that Luongo will start Game 5 and Vancouver will play so well and be so hungry for a win that Luongo won't face much action early on. But if Boston weathers the early storm and starts getting their chances, we'll find out very quickly how confident Luongo is by his rebound control and his ability to catch the puck cleanly. And if Vancouver gets behind the 8-ball, I'd expect Vigneault to have a quick hook, especially with the knowledge that Schneider played well in Game 6 against Chicago…despite a pair of costly puck-handling gaffes. And so it comes down to this: if Vancouver is destined to win the Stanley Cup, they will stem the tide of momentum and take advantage of being back on home ice. But they'd better not wait for some last-minute heroics to get it done, because Luongo's confidence is unquestionably shakier now than it was early in the series. Speed should be the key. Boston has now matched Vancouver's physicality, but the Canucks must use their team speed to exploit the Bruins' defense. If they do, they'll get Thomas moving the way Tampa had him moving on occasion in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then the goals will come in bunches.
Fortunately for the Canucks, they've been down this road before. I'm not sure what it is about this team that sees them spiral so wildly out of control on occasion. But in Games 4 and 5 against Chicago, the Canucks got complacent and then couldn't stop the bleeding. After a 5-0 shutout in Chicago in Game 4, Vancouver returned home for Game 5, only to lay another egg. The 7-2 final was ugly, and you had to wonder how a team that had played so well in building a 3-0 series lead against their nemesis could suddenly look so impotent. Obviously, when things snowball the way they did in Game 3 last night against Boston, you have to take the loss with a grain of salt and move on. After a tremendous 1st period for the Canucks, which included a 5-minute penalty kill on the Rome major, Vancouver seemed to have weathered the storm, and if it hadn't been for Tim Thomas' continued excellence, Vancouver might have escaped the period with the lead. But they had no puck luck throughout the game, while Boston got a pair of breaks early in the 2nd. The Ference wrister to open the scoring 11 seconds into the second frame seemed to have eyes, and it came after Edler's stick broke trying to make a pass three seconds into the period. A hard-luck goal to be sure, but a goal that got the ball rolling in Boston's favour. The second goal came on a power-play a little over three minutes later, and it was another bounce that went Boston's way, as Mark Recchi's centring pass deflected off Kesler's stick and through Luongo's 5-hole. Then, just past the mid-way point of the hockey game and with Vancouver on their third power play of the evening, Brad Marchand scored the goal that broke the camel's back. Despite the 2-0 deficit, Vancouver had carried the play through the first half of the game. Thomas had made some fantastic saves, while Boston had benefited from a couple favourable bounces. But the Marchand short-handed goal was a brilliant solo effort, as he took advantage of some sloppy defending from Vancouver's first power-play unit. After stripping Daniel Sedin at centre ice, the Canucks had three defenders around Marchand, but Kesler, Ehrhoff, and Edler all looked nonchalant. Edler decided to fish for the puck instead of defend, which allowed Marchand to chip it off the boards to himself. Ehrhoff, meanwhile, was skating back at half-speed, perhaps assuming that Kesler and Edler would be sufficient defense to deal with the situation. But Marchand was in full flight, and Kesler went for a lazy poke check instead of using his body to angle Marchand into the corner, which allowed Marchand to waltz in all alone on Luongo, who also went fishing and missed. After that, the floodgates were open. In the end, the scoreline flattered Boston. Three of the eight goals were scored in the final two-and-a-half minutes, which once again makes you wonder what in God's name Luongo was still doing in net. Considering his propensity to give up more goals once his team has fallen behind by a few, why wouldn't Vigneault put Schneider in for the 3rd. I mean, what's the benefit to keeping Luongo in when you're down 4-0? Despite the scoreline, he hadn't played all that poorly, and the potential danger is that Boston continues to light the lamp, which is exactly what happened. No goalie likes being pulled, and Luongo may have told AV to leave him in, but why is the ultra-competitive Luongo making that call rather than the coach? Tim Thomas, on the other hand, was the reason Vancouver was kept off the score sheet until it was too late, as Jannik Hansen's 3rd of the playoffs came on Vancouver's 40th shot. So 8-1. No big deal. Vancouver outshot Boston 41-38, and there will be games where things don't go your way. But unless Game 4 plays out differently and the Canucks look like a hungry and resilient team full of confidence, the snowball will be in full effect.
<img src="http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2009/11/nov1709_chbsmall_smallt.jpg" class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Through all the ups and downs this season there haven't been very many constants. We've had a mismatch of players, we've been short staffed on forwards, blue liners, goaltenders. We've had a hot power play, a cold penalty kill. We've signed ECHLers, played with the waiver wire, and the only thing that's remained constant in the first 33 games of the season is Alain Vigneault. Tonight the Canucks look to string together their first four game winning streak of the season, and it's been the stellar play of Luongo and Henrik Sedin that have pulled the Canucks up to 5 games above .500, but who have also taken the heat off of Vigneault. I was never for the Vigneault extension, and I still thing it was the wrong move. The fact of the matter is that while Vigneault continues to be inconsistent in the result he produces on ice, there's always another scapegoat to take the blame. When a team's playing .500 hockey the excuses are all about the players. There's always an individual who would do better, or a player who's injured and considered a large part of the team's winning ways. The thing is, we went through every excuse in the book to start the season. From the cliche "we always run into hot goal tenders" to "Luongo always starts slow" even to "we always play down to our opponents" the excuses were rampant and everyone was blamed from Wellwood, to Luongo and half the blue line. Because it's .500 hockey no one ever things to blame the coach and I think that's a problem. Vigneault's preached a defensive style of hockey which has left us frustrated at some of the most important times (like sitting on a one goal lead in the playoffs). The Canucks need a coach that plays a different style of hockey and I think until you swap Vigneault out for a Craig McTavish, or a Marc Crawford (I think he would thrive under the team we have right now) you're accepting .500 hockey and not seeing what this team is really capable of. This team was touted to be one of the best this season on paper. I'm tired of blaming individual players for the team's short comings. It's hard to say that a slumping Wellwood, for example, even if he were to start a goal scoring streak, would result in Canucks wins. It's a team game and while certain players need to elevate their game, I don't think that this many games into the season you can keep pinpointing individual efforts or lack thereof for group shortcomings. So why aren't they consistent? It starts behind the bench. <img src="http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2009/11/nov1709_mozy_small.jpg" class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Richard Loat writes for Canucks Hockey Blog and is a fan of the underdog – first Bryan Allen, then Alex Burrows, and now Jannik Hansen. His passion for the Canucks led to the Canucks Hockey Blog and a lot of #Canucks tweets on his Twitter account.