Canucks game against Chicago is critical

Pelletier: Vancouver line juggling finished for now

The Vancouver Canucks finished what was seemingly their worst home stand in years. It started out great with a convincing victory over St. Louis in a first place showdown.

Then they inexplicably tanked, losing to Buffalo, Dallas and Phoenix (of which I believe only Phoenix will make the playoffs), were embarrassed by Montreal, and were out-cheered in their own building by Winnipeg Jets fans. At least they beat the Jets and edged Columbus, the worst team in the entire National Hockey League.

But then they lost on the road last night to Minnesota.

On top of all that, the unexpected happened. The Sedin twins magic dried up and they went on lengthy pointless streaks not seen since their rookie season. Not even Nostradamus saw that one coming. They picked up some points against the Coyotes and Blue Jackets, but they have not been dominant in the second half of the season.

And of course the expected happened. Roberto Luongo has struggled, allowing that weak-goal-per-game back to his resume. It must be March. The playoffs are around the corner and hey, it wouldn’t be the playoffs without a goaltending controversy and doubting Luongo critics.

In actuality the home stand sounds worse than it was. In actuality they had 3 wins and 4 losses. Far from great but not apoplectic either. Lots of fans and media are predictably over-reacting at a 7 game window in a long season. Is there reason for concern? Sure. But let’s keep it in perspective.

Somehow St. Louis pulled away from Vancouver in the standings, which all but ensures Vancouver a second place finish in the Western Conference. It is almost impossible to fall lower, and improbably to move up. This is a disinterested team that knows they will be defined by the playoffs, not the this home stand.

With that in mind, the coaching staff has lowered the minutes played of many of the top players. Different players are being tried in different roles. New power play set ups and zone-entry plays are being tested. The line combinations and defense pairings have been put in the blender.

The coaches know that this may cost them some points right now, but there is long term benefit. You will likely see the defense pairings returned to normal soon so that the Canucks can (in theory) polish up there game for the final few games before the playoffs. But once injuries happen, players will not have as big an adjustment to new linemates. This haunted the Canucks at times during the 2011 playoffs. The coaching staff wants to make the inevitable transition as easy as possible. And they need to know what the new players are capable of in order to maximize their effectiveness in the playoffs.

The experimenting has not paid dividends so far, that’s for sure. Normally the Sedins scoring would have masked many of the blemishes. Or regular defensive partners would have cleared rebounds and made better break out passes. Throw in Luongo’s nightly oopsey daisy goal and the fact that the playoffs are nearing, and it is not hard to understand why Canucks fans are worried about their team.

They can quiet a lot of those critics with a strong road trip this week, especially with a statement game in Chicago. Expect the lines and D-pairings to be back to normal that night as the Canucks hope to ramp it up for a strong finish.

Slap Shots:

The Canucks have announced center Steven Reinprecht will be recalled for game one of the playoffs. The cagey veteran, acquired in the David Booth trade, has been buried in the minor leagues as the Canucks are afraid to lose him on re-call waivers. Expect Reinprecht to play in the playoffs, though not likely right away.