by Joel Smart (Sports Editor)
A shootout loss to the Chicago team that eliminated them from cup contention last spring was bookended by lopsided duals against a Minnesota Wild team that made one thing extremely clear; the Canucks are struggling to find their identity.
Inconsistent play is a classic symptom of a team that doesn’t have its swagger. The Canucks aren’t confident yet this season, and it’s probably for a pretty good reason. They are a very different team than they were last year. So far, they’ve been strongest in areas they were weakest in last season, namely the penalty kill. However, they’ve struggled to score in many games so far, not to mention coming back from behind. Those were their biggest selling points last season! Granted, after the Wild game on Friday night, the Canucks had only played eight games in the season. Nevertheless, the way a team comes out of the starting gates does say something about the collective mindset in the locker room.
Another factor, besides lacking confidence, is the location of the games. After the Wild game, the Canucks have three wins at home and three losses on the road. The combination of last change, home fans, no travel and better understanding of the bounces of the boards is making all the difference for the Canucks right now. Last change is probably the most important of these factors, as it must be stated that the Canuck lines are not all created equal.
Cory Schneider has been an incredible bright spot for the Canucks so far, winning both games he has played in with nary a sign of shakiness. This is an impressive feat considering both he and Roberto Luongo are making fairly major changes to their game, under the teaching of goaltending coach Roland Melanson. Luongo has been playing a different style for a lot longer than Schneider, so it makes sense that he is struggling to adapt as quickly. With that being said, Luongo has looked pretty good in net for the most part. As much as many people are questioning his ability, I think having Luongo in net will be critical to the success of the team, once he builds a bit more confidence in his game as well. In the shootout loss to Chicago, where Luongo let in three straight goals, it was apparent that his shootout struggles had started to get into his head. However, in the second half of that game, he kept the Canucks in the game, playing perhaps his strongest night of the season so far. His stop against the Hawk’s leading-scorer Marian Hossa in the final minutes of overtime showed that he was more than capable of making a great save off of a breakaway when it really counts.
It is tough for fans of the Canucks right now to make sense of the erratic play of their team. Some nights they look like they could take on any team in the league with ease, while looking like they don’t even belong in the NHL the next night. They can take heart in the fact that at least they’re pulling even for the time being, with the return of several key players for the team soon approaching. That could be just the spark they need.