The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are a study in the predicted travails of a truncated hockey season, starting fast or slow – and the potentially big blow of injuries.
The Flames were visitors in Vancouver on Saturday night, the third of a trio of Canadian matchups on a hockey-filled Saturday – though much of the hockey played through the day and into the night was of questionable quality.
Calgary opened the scoring in a listless, from both sides, first period – but could not hold on, as Vancouver stormed back for a 5-1 victory. It snubbed out the Flames's short run of two wins and propelled the Canucks to the status of the hottest team in the National Hockey League – five consecutive wins.
These two Northwest division rivals cleaved on their third game of the year, when Calgary was in Vancouver and neither yet had a win. The Flames fought back from a 2-0 deficit but lost in a shootout, which marked the moment where Vancouver started slowly finding its gear and Calgary spiralled to, at one point, last place in the Western Conference.
On Saturday, it was the reverse. The Canucks were something close to comatose for most of the first period, unable to register a shot in the first eight minutes of play, and the home crowd's somewhat-lame urging chant of "Go Canucks Go" sputtered quickly, mirroring the play on the ice.
Calgary opened the scoring as Lee Stempniak banged home a rebound late in the first, before Vancouver began to pull away in the second, the demarcation point coming midway through the game, a very-pretty deflection by rookie Jordan Schroeder in the slot on the power play that was the 22-year-old's first-ever NHL goal.
"I kind of snuck in behind the D," said Schroeder of the goal, adding that he saw the slap-pass from defenceman Alex Edler the whole way – though didn't know where the puck was after he deflected it until it trickled in.
After pocketing his first goal, it didn't take long for Schroeder to notch his second, scoring late in the third to punctuate the win, and cradled both pucks in the locker room postgame answering questions for a crush of reporters.
With the loss, Calgary is stuck fighting off a slow start, one compounded by an odd schedule. On Saturday night the Flames played just their ninth game, the last NHL team to reach that mark, whereas Vancouver and many other teams are near the one-quarter post of the short season, with 11 games played. Calgary had five games in January, compared with Vancouver's seven, a situation that is reversed in April, when the Flames pile in 15 games in 26 days, while the Canucks play 13 to end the year in April.
For now, and possibly for a long while, the Flames – 3-4-2 – are in chase mode, down three points on Minnesota and Edmonton in the Northwest, a gap that could have been closed with a win in Vancouver but remains a bigger-than-it-looks hurdle to overcome. And it is at this moment when injuries really start to bite, missing the likes of offensive threats Mike Cammalleri and promising Swiss rookie Sven Baertschi, which surely hurt against Vancouver, never mind the absence of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. In net, however, even with at-times solid play from backup Leland Irving, it is not an emergency, as Kiprusoff and his tweaked knee is expected to be back this coming week – having missed several consecutive starts for the first time in upwards of a decade.
Vancouver, also partly gutted by injury (missing Ryan Kesler and David Booth is directly correlated to the Canucks's scarcity of goals), now rides the luxury of a hot start, well in control of the Northwest. The Canucks are, at this juncture, the only Northwest team that would make the playoffs, and are five up on Minnesota, which – even if there are many games to play – gives Vancouver a fairly reasonable shot at, at least, the third seed come May.
It didn't look good for Vancouver, early on this year, and on Saturday against the Flames. But like the Canucks's work against the Flames, the team sloughed off an inglorious beginning. An ugly opening night eventually evolved to a 2-2-2 record and five in a row puts Vancouver at 7-2-2, which is by far the best start of the Alain Vigneault era, now in its seventh season.
So even as Vancouver deals with big questions – where is the power play, mired in a 3-for-34 slump – the team has some comfort in the underpinning of a strong start, made possible by often-great goaltending from Cory Schneider and great netminding from Roberto Luongo.
Vancouver was 1-for-5 on the power play Saturday, with Schroeder getting the goal – and it was on an interesting new-look first line power play, the rookie joining the Sedin twins, winger Alex Burrows and just one D-man, Edler. Schroeder played 4:51 on the power play Saturday -- leading all Canucks.
"We're a work in progress," said Vigneault after the game of the 7-2-2 start, saying there are "a lot of positives," concluding: "I'm confident it's going to get better."
On Saturday, Schneider was a difference-maker, again, stopping 33 of 34 shots. If one is to exclude his terrible play on opening night – five goals on 14 shots – Schneider's save-percentage for the season has now climbed to 0.947, which is better than Luongo at 0.940. Saturday also marked Schneider's sixth start of the year, compared with Luongo's five. (Including his immolation against Anaheim, Schneider's save-percentage is 0.921.) As The Globe has previously reported, a platoon is likely the situation for the two netminders, amid Vigneault's joking about coin flipping, rather than Schneider standing as the obvious and decisive No. 1 (unless, say, he goes on a crazy run of incredible play).
Schneider said he was happy to get back-to-back starts and noted both he and Luongo are riding strong rhythms.
"Everyone's happy when you're winning games," he said, deflecting a question of the question of his definite status as No. 1 goaltender.
On the scoring front, the Canucks have to be buoyed by the outburst of scoring in the past two games, especially since the Sedins are nowhere men with their slowest scoring start in nearly a decade. As noted, missing Kesler – who odds-are won't be back any time soon – especially hurts the Sedins, who are marked men for other team's top lines, players that Kesler would normally battle. But in the absence of the Canucks's biggest names on the scoresheet, goals have come from basically everyone: in the past six games, 13 Canucks have scored 18 goals. That, combined with two great goaltenders, has put Vancouver on a course for its fifth consecutive division title, as Calgary is staring at the ignominy of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year.