Ten minutes in, it looked like this: The Vancouver Canucks had solved all their recent problems, and everything going wrong for the Phoenix Coyotes had worsened.
Then it all started to fall apart on Wednesday night – and one of the best teams in the National Hockey League saw a poorly timed slump get uglier as the playoffs approach. Blowing a 2-0 lead, the Canucks went down 5-4, at home, to the Coyotes, with Phoenix scoring more than twice as many goals on Vancouver in 60 minutes than Phoenix had in three previous games versus Vancouver this season.
Two of the them came on the power play: The NHL's worst power play (13.5 per cent after Wednesday) went two-for-two on Vancouver.
But don't worry, Vancouver insists the ship of state is strong. The team has won just two of its last eight (2-4-2), with the slump coming during an extended home stand, yet the Canucks remain solidly in second in the Western Conference with 92 points, which also stands as third best in the NHL.
And, don't forget, other top teams – looking at the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings – are having similar struggles. But, meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who welcome Sidney Crosby back Thursday night, are playing amazing hockey.
In this swirling milieu, captain Henrik Sedin speaks like a man who has won most everything there is to win in hockey, with his eye only on one last trophy. Losing to Phoenix does not jar that focus. With a gold medal, and trophies for most valuable player and NHL leading scorer at home, Sedin viewed the 5-4 loss as a step in the right direction, after an awful 4-1 loss to Montreal last Saturday.
The Canucks, Sedin believes, are a tinker or two away from top-flight form. And Vancouver took solace in the fact that it peppered 43 shots on Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, who played very well, and spent a significant amount of the night in the Coyotes' end.
"We're not playing at our best yet right now," said Sedin after the game. "We won the Presidents' Trophy last year, where it didn't really matter either. For us it's getting to a place where we feel good about our game, and feel confident going into the playoffs. It might take a game or so. We're second in the conference. There's a lot of expectations from the outside on this team, and I think we're handling it good. We try to be on an even keel, don't be too high or too low. That's what fans and other people have to realize as well."
Roberto Luongo, who played so well for four months, has had a so-so March, at best, and didn't play especially well Wednesday. Spotty goaltending was compounded by Vancouver's defence, which was also so-so at best – and that's charitable – as Phoenix capitalized on odd-man rushes.
Words that critics would call excuses were used. The likes of defenceman Kevin Bieksa, after the game, called several of the Coyotes' goals "lucky," such as Gilbert Brule's mark late in the second to put Phoenix up 4-3. Brule, crashing the net, Bieksa in hot pursuit (after himself leading a failed odd-man – three on one – rush himself moments earlier), a puck that sailed through the crease bounced off the Phoenix forward and went in.
But in Vancouver, the city of glass where brittle fans ever-more fear their team just doesn't have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs, doubt reigned late Wednesday. "I don't want to see Raymond in a Canucks uniform any more" one caller said of underperforming forward Mason Raymond, whose move to the first line with the underperforming Sedins didn't produce results. Another caller said Henrik Sedin's 13 goals this year is "a joke." (It is Sedin's first season with less than a point per game since 2007-08, the last time the Canucks missed the playoffs.) And, finally, a sports-radio host addressed those who voiced confidence, asking whether fans should just place "blind faith" in the team.
Slumping Vancouver had been hungry for the win, after two days of rest, to revive its form in good time for the playoffs.
But the visitors, Phoenix, needed the win a lot more, the Coyotes fighting to hold on to their place near the bottom of the top eight in the Western Conference, starting Wednesday one point ahead of four teams.
The win kept Phoenix in seventh, and a point ahead of Colorado, which won 5-4 in a shootout in Buffalo. And now Phoenix is just two points from division rival, Pacific-leading Dallas.
For Vancouver, it may only take, as Sedin says, "a game or so" to hit a big roll in the right direction. The next chance is Saturday, again at home, against the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets, before a four-game road trip. Then the season ends with six of seven at home.
Time does run short before the real season, the "war every day" of the playoffs – in the words of team assistant general manager Laurence Gilman. The Coyotes could well be a first-round opponent.
"You can't just turn a switch on," said winger Ryan Kesler after a game-day skate earlier on Wednesday. "You want to go into playoffs playing your best. The only way this team plays at its best is being intense, and being a hard working team on the ice. We're not going to win by just throwing our skates out there, and hoping."
Coach Alain Vigneault was measured in his assessment – obviously not wanting to unduly unleash negativity for public consumption. "Hopefully," he said after the game, "this is a step in the right direction," citing the Canucks' time in the Coyotes' end. He said there would be work to do at practice Thursday and Friday, to deal with the simple reality of sport: "This game is about winning, and we didn't win tonight."
In net, there have already been many calls to see more of star backup Cory Schneider, who has been hot this season, and has better stats than Luongo. The theory, it is believed, of playing Luongo Wednesday night was to shake off some poor play of late. Vigneault hasn't publicly decided who plays Saturday.
Luongo, after the game, offered an allusion to online poker, his favourite pastime: "When things are going the way they are, you just want to hit the reset button. You know, start building it up again. It all starts with work in practice. That's the way it goes, that's the way I've always approached it when things are not going the way I want to."
As for what goaltending coach Roland Melanson will look to work on Thursday, Luongo, last-man standing in an empty locker room, had a somewhat rueful laugh. "Probably more than one thing, I assume."
One would figure those seven words apply to the whole team.
Sedin ends slump
Amid the loss, one positive was the captain's name on the score sheet.
On the verge of tying the worst-ever slump of his career, Henrik Sedin's first-period assist lifted his lifetime points total to 733, all of them notched for the Canucks. It tied him for second all-time among Canucks' scorers with Trevor Linden. An assist in the third period put him ahead of Linden, and now Sedin ranks behind only Markus Naslund.
The Canucks captain had gone eight games without a point, the longest string of score-sheet donuts in nearly a decade, since late 2003. The only longer drought of the 31-year-old's career was at the start of his second season, nine games in October, 2001.
The slump-ending assist came midway through the first, on the power play, when Sedin patiently held the puck before he put it across the offensive zone from one faceoff circle to the other, Kesler waiting. He popped a blast past Phoenix's Mike Smith, who well handled the Canucks' 40-plus shot barrage.
"A lot of players go through stretches like this," Sedin said after a morning game-day skate on Wednesday. "Maybe not eight games, but four, five games, is not uncommon. Eight games is a little too much. We're used to, tops, going one or two without putting a point on the board. That's why it feels a little bit tough to take but, again, it's not like we've lost confidence."
Sedin has kept – outwardly at least – a smile on his face. Peppered with questions through the pointless stretch about the ever-lengthening slump, especially as his team struggled, Sedin seemed to skate through unperturbed. On the ice during the game-day skate on Wednesday, Sedin laughed and joked, and seemed loose. Afterwards, he exuded Scandinavian calm, insisting there was no other choice but to maintain relative good spirits.
"We have to," he said midday, with a smile and a quick laugh. "If we would have been in bad spirits, that would have been tough. We're in second place in our conference, our team is doing really good, even though we're not scoring. We know we're going to get out of this."