Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
With their 4-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday, the Vancouver Canucks not only earned their 11th win in their past 13 games, but they also won their 50th contest of the season, setting a franchise record for victories in a season. The win was also their 25th triumph on the road, also a club record.
The victory did not come without a price, however, as defenseman Dan Hamhuis was injured in a three-way collision with Jackets LW Rick Nash and Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa. He lay face down on the ice for nearly a minute, then gingerly skated to the bench and to the dressing room. It was a dark cloud over what was truly a momentous day for the franchise, and it raises some concerns as the team marches toward the Presidents’ Trophy.
The injury to Hamhuis comes at a bad time for him, as he has already spent time on the shelf this season with a concussion. His head did appear to slam into the ice on the inadvertent collision in the second period, and so if he ends up with concussion symptoms again, it could very well put his season in jeopardy.
Hamhuis’ situation isn’t exactly welcome news to a club that has thrived in large part this season on having a deep pool of talent to draw from. Alex Edler has been out since late January with a back injury, and Manny Malhotra is done for the year (and possibly his career) after taking a puck to the eye recently. Andrew Alberts is also out for the Canucks with a broken wrist. While all three of these players have had a big impact for Vancouver this year, losing Hamhuis on top of that could be a devastating blow to a team that has largely cruised through their schedule this season.
With these injuries really starting to pile up for the Canucks, it becomes more of a question than a definitive statement as to whether or not they are the favorite to win the Western Conference. Yes, they still have plenty of great players, and a fantastic goaltender in Roberto Luongo, but at the same time, these depth-sapping injuries to their blue line corps have likely made them more susceptible to being picked off in the playoffs.
Ultimately, the question of whether they are still the favorites to win the Stanley Cup has good arguments on both sides of the topic. Can the Canucks overcome these injuries, or is the blow of possibly losing Hamhuis one that knocks them even further back towards the field in the race for hockey’s ultimate crown?
One thing definitely working in the team’s favor is the continued solid play of Mr. Luongo in net. He is currently sporting a very respectable 35-14-7 record, with a 2.18 GAA and .927 save percentage. He also has three shutouts on the campaign, and has been lights out for the most part while this team has dealt with their blue line turmoil.
Coming into the season, Luongo was facing questions about his decision to give up the captaincy of the club and of his lackluster play the last two postseasons against the Chicago Blackhawks, but he has acquitted himself wonderfully even with controversy swirling around him. He may not be the top contender for the Vezina Trophy, but with the way he has played with a defense in front of him that features a rotating cast of characters, he definitely deserves to be in the discussion.
Aiding Luongo in this banner year has been the play of back-up goaltender Cory Schneider. He has a sparkling 14-3-2 record for the Canucks this season, along with a 2.22 GAA and a .927 save percentage. Having the ability to play Schneider at his leisure has allowed head coach Alain Vigneault to rest Luongo as often as he wants, and this could be crucial should Vancouver find itself in a serious playoff battle that goes the full seven games.
Outside of the sustaining force in net for Vancouver, there is the three-headed monster of offensive firepower that they possess. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are both making strong cases for the Hart Trophy, with Henrik piling up 70 assists and Daniel currently second in the league with 40 goals. Both players have also been dominant on the power play, with Henrik notching 32 points on the man-advantage and Daniel scoring a very good 18 goals on the power play.
While both of those guys were expected to produce at a high level, no one could have foreseen the emergence of Ryan Kesler as a bonafide star for this club. Playing in the shadow of the Sedin twins, Kesler has scored 36 goals and gotten 66 points overall, and all the while not compromising his Selke-caliber defensive skills in the process. He also has 26 points on the man-advantage this season, and he is a huge contributor to the number on power play unit in the entire NHL.
Even with all of that firepower on the offensive side of the puck, the questions facing Vancouver on defense are certainly enough to give experts pause in picking them to win it all come June. Teams like Anaheim and Chicago have a ton of offensive skill, which can cause a depleted blue line all sorts of problems. Add in the fact that defenses tend to tighten up their games come playoff time, and you can see how there will be exponentially more pressure on a player like Luongo to perform when the lights shine brightest.
So can the Canucks use their superior offensive weaponry to overcome any shortcomings they may have on the defensive side of the puck? Ultimately, that answer may rest on the shoulders of the guy wearing number one between the pipes. Luongo is going to have to continue his solid play, and that has been a concern for him the past few playoff runs. If he can stand tall in net and keep the Canucks in games, then there is no reason to believe that this squad isn’t still the favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup.
The Western Conference is a very talented collection of teams, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them ended up representing the conference in the Cup Finals. With all of that talent and parity in the mix, the Canucks are still the best team out of all of them. The pressure will be fully on them to perform, and if the big stars don’t come to the party when the puck drops on the playoffs, it could be a very long summer in the Pacific Northwest.