One team is underperforming, the other is outperforming - and it's the second-most important sporting event in Vancouver Sunday.
The visiting Ottawa Senators, playing way better hockey than even its most ardent fans had hoped, battle the struggling Vancouver Canucks tonight at Rogers Arena at 6 p.m PT-- about an hour-and-a-half after the CFL's Western Conference final wraps up across the street at BC Place.
At the hockey arena, both teams are hungry for a win. Vancouver, the defending Presidents' Trophy winner and Stanley Cup finalist, stands at an ugly 11th place in its conference, with a 9-9-1 record. It was smoked in its last outing 5-1 by Chicago, the league's best team (who were then embarassed 14-4 in back-to-back in beatings in Alberta, on Friday in Calgary and Saturday in Edmonton).
"We need this one badly," said backup goalie Cory Schneider after a Sunday morning skate.
Schneider started against Chicago and will start again tonight, as Roberto Luongo continues to rehab a secret "upper-body" injury (though he was on ice Sunday with the team with for second-consecutive day).
"The season's a fourth of the way over and we're on the outside looking in," said Schneider, sitting in the dressing room with his goalie pads still on. "We need to make a push here. We need to make a run to get into that mix and consider ourselves playoff contenders."
The Canucks, already leaning on their backup goaltender, may be without their best defenceman. Alex Edler, the enigmatic 25-year-old Swede, woke up Sunday with a stiff back and did not skate with the team. An appearance on the blue line against the Sens will be a "game-time decision," coach Alain Vigneault said.
Edler, several games ago, was tied for the lead in scoring among NHL defencemen. His 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists), still ranks No 4 in the league- but he doesn't have a point in his pass three matches and was outhustled by Chicago's Marian Hossa midway through the third on Wednesday night, which led to a goal that put Chicago up 3-1 en route to its 5-1 win. So perhaps Edler's back has been a percolating problem in recent days. In any case, it is bad news for the Canucks D, given that Keith Ballard (also back problems) is out, too, after leaving the ice against Chicago.
On the other side of the puck, the Senators, like the Canucks, sit at 11th in their conference, but it is a standing that few observers would call ugly. The ragtag Sens, a mix of veterans and NHL newbies, were predicted to be a top contender for last place in the East.
However, the Sens are in fact one better than the Canucks right now, at 10-9-1, and have won their last three, all on the road, Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton (outscoring their opponents 13-5).
If the Sens win in Vancouver, it would be the first time in franchise history that the team has beat all three Western Canadian teams on one tour of the region. And Ottawa hasn't won in Vancouver since before the lockout - some seven years. Still, the team's feeling lively, happy. The Senators had their annual rookie's dinner on Friday night in Vancouver, at the downtown Yaletown hotspot Opus. It was good times, said enforcer Zenon Konopka. (The 30-year-old is No 2 in the league in penalty-box time at 73 minutes- and his +3 is tied for second-best on the Sens.)
"We're having a lot of fun on the road," said Konopka. "Happy players are good players."
Perhaps it is - please bear with the unusual theory- a moustache-powered run. The Senators have embraced Movember, the moustache-growing month of November to raise money for prostate cancer. Konopka's black stache was declared Sunday morning by lockermate Daniel Alfredsson to be "ugly." I'm pretty sure it was a compliment.
As Movember reaches the three-week mark, staches are really coming in to bloom, just as the Sens embrace some serious winning ways on the road. Coincidence? More evidence is required. What is certain is the team has raised more than $13,000 for the cause.