On Tuesday night in Chicago, against the National Hockey League's best team, the Vancouver Canucks were mostly overmatched and lucky to scrape into overtime with a couple of late goals, salvaging a loser's point as Vancouver went down in a shootout. The awarding of two points to Chicago, and one to Vancouver, did not jibe with the performance on the ice.
The Canucks defence appeared particularly defenceless – and a possible new look was displayed at practice on Wednesday at a rink in the Dallas suburbs, with free-agent signing Jason Garrison demoted to the third defensive pair and Chris Tanev bumped to the second pair with Alex Edler.
The loss in Chicago was Vancouver's third consecutive, a skid that comes after a hot run of six wins during which Vancouver ceded just six goals. However, five of those wins were against Northwest division weaklings – none of whom would make the playoffs if they began today. Now the Canucks are in the midst of their biggest test so far in this short season, playing teams better than any in their own division. They fell in Chicago and, on Thursday, Vancouver takes on Dallas, followed the next night in Nashville, and two nights later in Detroit, the team's sixth game in 10 days.
It could be a revealing stretch.
Goaltending remains the team's crutch, as was the case last winter, and it was the case again against Chicago, where Cory Schneider was often brilliant and the only reason the Canucks managed to make it to, or through, overtime. Schneider gets the start against Dallas, his ninth of the year, compared with Roberto Luongo's seven, even as Schneider is 4-3-1 and Luongo is 4-0-3 – Luongo turning down interviews on Wednesday.
Most of all, against Chicago, the Canucks just didn't look like competent rivals to the Blackhawks, though Vancouver did manage to beat Chicago at home 2-1 in a shootout in a stilted affair at the start of February during the team's six-game streak.
"We're still trying to get to that level consistently," said Schneider on Wednesday in Dallas after practice. "We've reached that level at times throughout the season so far, but we haven't been there consistently enough for our liking. We've had a lot of 40-minute efforts, or 50-minute efforts and a handful good 60-minute efforts – that culminated in the winning streak."
While the team looks towards yet another division title, a peek at the little-noted ROW figure – regulation plus overtime wins – in the standings table shows perhaps something more.
Vancouver stands at 16th in the NHL in ROW, with six wins in regulation or overtime. The figure only really counts when it comes to a tiebreak at season's end – but it does show the team hasn't really dominated at all, even as its Northwest lead gives it third spot in the Western conference. The Canucks are eighth overall in the NHL league in points.
In Dallas, it was a dress-and-skate, where the team departed the downtown American Airlines Center – host to a Dallas Mavericks game Wednesday night – to practice at a Stars rink about 20 minutes up an interstate in Farmers Branch, before returning to change back at the arena downtown. Boxes of Potbelly sandwiches, a chain from Chicago, fed the hungry players.
With Garrison on the third defensive pairing, alongside Keith Ballard, the Canucks now have $8.8-million devoted to their third line of defence, probably the most expensive such duo in the league. It is likely temporary and coach Alain Vigneault said it wasn't certain for the Dallas game.
Garrison has two points in 15 games, compared with 33 in 77 last year. He said the defence has to communicate better on the ice but didn't feel he had been demoted. Kevin Bieksa, who is back with Dan Hamhuis as Vancouver's primary defenders, deflected questions of the shuffle after the ugly showing in Chicago.
"Pairings are going to change through the season," said Bieksa. "I don't think it's a huge deal."