After a slow start, Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks are rolling once again. (Getty Images)
The Stanley Cup hangover should have been even worse for the losers than it was for the winners.
The Vancouver Canucks were far and away the favorites last season. They ran away with the Presidents' Trophy in a time of parity in the NHL. They scored the most goals and allowed the fewest. They ranked first on the power play, third on the penalty kill.
And the end result of the greatest season in franchise history was not the first championship in franchise history. It was a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins on home ice, an extension of four decades of frustration, a riot that stained the city. There were questions about the goaltending and the team's toughness.
But the Canucks didn't struggle as badly as the Bruins did to start the season, sinking only as low as 6-7-1, and they have bounced back almost as well as the B's have. They are 9-1-1 in their past 11. They seem like themselves again, and they think higher of themselves than ever before.
"We were one win away, so I don't think you need to change much," said goaltender Roberto Luongo. "That being said, though, we went through a lot last year, and I think we grew as a team. So for that reason alone, I think that we're better than last year. We're more mature and more experienced, and we know what it takes to get there. I think we could handle adversity much better than last year."
Well, Luongo said that before the Canucks looked as flat as Ohio farmland on Tuesday night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. But they did steal a point on a night when they were clearly not at their best – perhaps not as jacked to face the Jackets as, say, the Bruins – and though they aren't at the level they were last year yet, they're not far off, either.
The Canucks are third in the NHL in goals per game (3.23) and seventh in goals against (2.37). They are first in power-play efficiency (25.6 percent), sixth on the penalty kill (86.6 percent).
Dave Bolland can say what he wants about the Sedin twins. But at a time when a lot of new names have appeared among the scoring leaders, the last two scoring champions remain in the top 10. Daniel is tied for third with 34 points. Henrik is right behind with 33 points.
Ryan Kesler has recovered from off-season hip surgery and become a two-way terror again. He just went on a run of five goals and 14 points in 10 games.
The goaltending controversy has continued. Luongo followed up his meltdowns in the final with his usual awful October, and backup Cory Schneider stood out for a while, winning five in a row. But Luongo rebounded as he usually does by winning four in a row himself, and Schneider's emergence should only help.
The two have good chemistry. After they combined for a shutout Dec. 6 against the Colorado Avalanche – Luongo starting and leaving with a neck injury, Schneider finishing the job – they were named the third star together. So they came out for a twirl together.
"It was pretty cute," said Schneider with a smile, echoing a comment by teammate Kevin Bieksa. "I don't know if we'd do it again, but it was fun at the time just because of everything that had been going on, all the talk about him and I. So it was kind of fun to do that together and just sort of push it under the rug."
The toughness issue remains. The perception is that the Bruins bullied the Canucks in the final. One of the enduring images is of Brad Marchand repeatedly smacking a Sedin in the face without suffering a response, and teams might feel even more emboldened to try that strategy now. The Ottawa Senators tried it Saturday night.
But the Canucks have always been a turn-the-other-cheek team, preferring to respond on the power play. They burned the Senators twice in a 4-1 victory. The problem in the final was that they couldn't burn the Bruins.
"We didn't lose the finals because of lack of toughness," Schneider said. "We lost because, you know, Tim Thomas stood on his head and we couldn't score any goals."
And so they are going to stick with their style.
"It got us to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and if you think that one tough or gritty player would have made the difference in Game 7, I don't think so," Schneider said. "Management's got a clear idea of what they want to do and where they're headed, and I think we have a lot of faith in them that they'll make the moves we need to succeed."
Management did add enforcer Aaron Volpatti, but he's out for the season with an injury and there doesn’t appear to be any plans to add toughness. There have been other changes, too, like the trade that brought David Booth from the Florida Panthers as part of a package for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. But for the most part this is the same team that is now playing the same way.
Though the Canucks are six points behind the surprising Minnesota Wild in the Northwest Division, they have two games in hand. It seems only a matter of time before they're fighting for a top seed again.
"We feel we're where we want to be as a team," Luongo said. "But at the same time, we can still have room for improvement and want to keep going in the right direction, obviously headed towards the playoffs."
Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi didn't give much of an update on his coaching situation Thursday, but there is no reason to doubt that Darryl Sutter will replace interim coach John Stevens when the team returns from the road on Tuesday.
"We're working through the process here, and we're making progress," Lombardi said. "We've got a good man in charge here right now, and I've got the utmost confidence in him to get us through this period."
This period? Meaning this trip?
"I don't necessarily have to say this trip," Lombardi said. "I just want Johnny focusing on day to day."
Lombardi declined to give any more detail. But it's clear Stevens won't be coaching the rest of the season – all Lombardi would say is that "I guess that could happen" – and Lombardi has said he has a "very short list."
Sutter is known for defense, hasn't coached since 2005-06 and has been out of the game since the Calgary Flames fired him as GM last December. But Lombardi once hired (and fired) him with the San Jose Sharks and has long respected him, and he wants to maintain the foundation laid by Terry Murray while sparking an offense that ranks last in the league.
"The whole idea is we're not changing our game, we're adding to our game," Lombardi said. "I don't want to lose what we've done here defensively … because I still believe in the end defense is critical if you're going to win in the playoffs. So that has firmly been put in place, and we're not changing our game. But if you're going to win it all, you've got to be able to do both, and that’s the step we want to take."
The Kings should to be able to do both easily. They have offensive defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, and they have skilled forwards like Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. Johnson said he was "blown away" by their struggles to score.
"What we really need is someone to get us going here offensively, someone with a real good offensive mind," Johnson said. "If we knew what was wrong, this wouldn't be a problem. So we need to someone to help us and tell us what else we can do. We're trying to shoot everything we can, crash the net, all of the old cliches. We're trying everything. … I've never seen anything like this. It's pretty unreal, and it's frustrating to say the least."
Is Sutter that real good offensive mind? There is reason to be skeptical. But Johnson said he and his teammates haven't been searching "Sutter" on the Internet to research their potential new boss.
"He's not the coach yet, so there's no reason to really look into it," Johnson said. "We don't know who's going to be the coach."
HBO's "24/7" series on the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers is meant to be entertainment. It isn't meant to be journalism. But I am trained to watch entertainment through a journalist's eyes, and as I enjoyed the debut of the four-part mini-series Wednesday night, I was struck by some of the themes Puck Daddy explored in his thought-provoking blog post.
I loved the lighter moments and human moments – like Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's musings about the universe and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan's postgame kiss for his grandmother, leaving her to wipe away tears. But I found myself analyzing the depiction of what HBO described as hockey's "ubiquitous brutality."
Concussions have become a huge issue in the media and in the game. The players are bigger, the pace is faster and the awareness is greater than ever before. So many players are dealing with this, including the league's best player, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby; the league's leading scorer, the Flyers' Claude Giroux; the league's leading goal-scorer, the Ottawa Senators' Milan Michalek; and, the reigning rookie of the year, the Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner.
HBO showed the heightened sensitivity when Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto crashed into the end boards shoulder-first and the trainer asked him about his head before anything else. It showed the limits of rule changes when Giroux took a teammate's knee to the back of the head, an obvious accident related more to the speed of the game than to the violence. It showed some of the process behind the scenes – Giroux going for testing, Giroux telling coach Peter Laviolette how he was feeling, Laviolette checking with the trainer.
But HBO also reflected how all of this plays into the bigger picture. Journalists need to take a sober look at the consequences of the brutality – from head shots to fighting – and NHL policy makers need to, too. But athletes have been celebrated for sacrificing their bodies probably as long as sports have been played, and having a clearer picture of the consequences frankly makes for even more gripping drama.
These guys know the horrors of concussions. They know about the research into degenerative brain disease. Yet the game is still so important to them that they continue to get bigger and skate faster and even fight with bare fists, risking their health to win a Stanley Cup or earn a contract?
"I know the position that I'm putting my body in, and I'm willing to make that sacrifice to have a better life for myself and my family," said Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski, who signed a six-year, $33 million free-agent contract in the off-season. "Obviously I don't want to die. … Obviously you never want to mess with your head because you want to play with your kids. But I know the fact that it's a violent sport and we get paid a lot of money to do it, and I'm willing to take that chance."
It was Dec. 1 when agent Allan Walsh ripped Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel on behalf of client Derick Brassard, releasing a statement that said "the coach has a history of burying players and using them as scapegoats to mask his own lack of success on the ice."
But it wasn't until about a week later – after the Jackets had returned from a four-game Canadian trip, after Arniel had scratched Brassard for the eighth time in 12 games – that the coach and player talked about it face to face.
"I wanted to think it through, and I wanted to cool down a little bit," Arniel said. "When I got home it was on my terms and in my office. And I let Derick do a lot of the talking, and then I did a lot of the talking. And at the end of the day, we walked out, shook hands, and it was a real good meeting."
The Jackets have high expectations for Brassard. They drafted him sixth overall in 2006. And when Arniel first scratched him Nov. 12, the Jackets were 2-12-1. Brassard had only one point in seven games and only four on the season, and he was minus-11.
Brassard, 24, told Arniel he was still a young player and learned from what happened.
"I would probably handle it different ways," Brassard said. "Everyone's got different agents. Some are more vocal than some. Mine is like that. He did a couple things like that in the past. That's the way he is, a very passionate guy about the game. But I don't know. He was trying to, whatever, protect me. But I told him, 'It's already been really hard here for everyone, so we don't need distractions like that.' "
Arniel told Brassard that he did what he did in an effort to win – the Jackets have gone 7-5-3 since Nov. 12 – and that Brassard needs to bring more if he's not producing offensively. He also told Brassard he would get another shot because of an injury to Kristian Huselius. Brassard has returned to the top six and joined the power play with Jeff Carter and Rick Nash. He has only one point in the past three games, but Arniel has been happier with his battle level.
At least the air has been cleared. Brassard said after the talk he felt "way better" about his relationship with Arniel, and he hasn’t been tossing and turning anymore.
"Best sleep I've had," Brassard said.
1. Philadelphia Flyers: They lost Giroux along with Chris Pronger, their captain. Still, they smoked the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night, 5-1, for their sixth straight victory. But as Bryz might say, how big is that, really, compared to the humongous solar system?
2. Boston Bruins: Seriously, how do you score on the defending Stanley Cup champions? Tim Thomas is still Tim Thomas with a 1.93 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. Backup Tuukka Rask's numbers are almost identically eye-popping – 1.82 and .939.
3. Minnesota Wild: After seven straight victories, the Wild was bound to lose sometime. So we're not writing off this team by any means after back-to-back one-goal losses to the Winnipeg Jets (in regulation) and Chicago Blackhawks (in a shootout). But the injuries continue to pile up, and the question remains whether they can keep it up.
4. Vancouver Canucks: No, they didn't look like it Tuesday night in a flat 2-1 shootout loss to the Blue Jackets. But the Stanley Cup runners-up have looked like an elite team again on a 9-1-1 run.
5. Detroit Red Wings: Remember when the Wings scored only six goals during a six-game losing streak? They have won three in a row by a combined score of 16-4. It was only a matter of time before Pavel Datsyuk started working his magic. He has 19 points in his past 12 games.
6. New York Rangers: Among the many great candid moments on "24/7" was coach John Tortorella screaming at sniper Marian Gaborik on the bench to stop on the puck. HBO cut to a sit-down interview with Gaborik. "He's very honest," Gaborik said. "You don't have to wonder, 'How did he mean that?' "
25. Colorado Avalanche: Where would the Avs be without the shootout? They're 5-0 in the skills competition this season, but despite those bonus points they're still 13th in the West.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning: You had to figure Dwayne Roloson would fall off at some point. He's 42. But it's shocking to see his goals-against average balloon to 3.67 and his save percentage deflate to .882. GM Steve Yzerman acquired Roloson about midway through last season because he wasn't happy with his goaltending. Will he make a move now because of Roloson's struggles?
27. New York Islanders: The Isles have three goalies – Evgeni Nabokov, Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya – but they can't afford to trade one of them because someone always seems to be injured or struggling.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets: Rick Nash has killed penalties lately because of an injury to winger Derek Dorsett, and he has looked dangerous doing so. It might be a way to get Nash more involved in the game and spark him offensively. But Arniel doesn't want to do it long-term for fear of wearing him out.
29. Anaheim Ducks: Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky returned from a broken finger, Rod Pelley arrived in a trade, and Visnovsky assisted as Pelley scored the first goal in a 4-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday night. Niklas Hagman, another recent addition, scored twice. Maybe things are looking up.
30. Carolina Hurricanes: GM Jim Rutherford realized his mistake in signing defenseman Tomas Kaberle to a three-year, $12.75 million contract, and he got out of it by shipping him to the Montreal Canadiens. In retrospect, maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising that Kaberle showed up unfit to play after winning the Cup with the Bruins, as Rutherford said. He hadn't appeared in the playoffs since 2004, and he had never gone four rounds before.
PLUS: At least one thing is going right for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos is tied for second in the league in goals with 18.
MINUS: Jaromir Jagr had an interesting way of explaining why he signed with the Flyers instead of the Penguins. "Sometimes you think your brain knows everything," he told HBO, "but you should follow your heart." Before he signed with Philadelphia last summer, agent Peter Svoboda told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Jagr had a "tough decision to make" because "Pittsburgh is in his heart."
PLUS: The plus/minus rankings are dominated by Bruins: Tyler Seguin (plus-21) is first, Brad Marchand (plus-19) second. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are tied with two others in third at plus-18. Chris Kelly is right behind at plus-17. The B's lead the league in goal differential at plus-41. The Red Wings are second at plus-30.
MINUS: My preseason Stanley Cup pick isn't looking so good. The Sharks have won only one of their past six games and sit eighth in the West. But I'm not panicking. Not yet. They didn't start well last season, either, and went to the Western Conference final.
PLUS: Now this is smart marketing: The Florida Panthers are selling rubber rats so fans can toss them on the ice after victories, as they did after goals during the run to the 1996 Stanley Cup final. An even smarter move would be to scoop 'em up and sell 'em again at a discount. Yes, used rats. Maybe they could start a rent-a-rat program.
MINUS: The Panthers have to win, though. They have started to stumble lately, earning only two points over a three-game stretch that including a 6-1 loss to the Rangers.
“Only problem with '24/7.' It's too good. It's better than reality. Trust me, CBJ practice today wasn't quite that compelling. #nosoundtrack.”
HBO showed glimpses of what life is really like in the big leagues, and the behind-the-scenes access gave fans a perspective they rarely get to see. But mostly it showed the best parts, the funniest parts, the dramatic parts – well-crafted highlights with well-written commentary set to music. A lot of less glamorous workaday stuff was left on the cutting-room floor, thank goodness.
After the Blue Jackets practiced Wednesday, the dressing room was empty. Players scattered quietly into anterooms, working out, getting treatment, showering, eating lunch. These are the average, unremarkable parts of the job everywhere, including New York and Philly. The only soundtrack came from the movie "Footloose" on the overhead television. Not exactly made-for-TV. Not exactly made-for-columns, either … until, um, now.