Commentary

There's something in the Vancouver air, and it's called panic

Updated: March 7, 2008, 4:52 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Sifting through the debris of a fourth consecutive defeat Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Alain Vigneault did what most perplexed coaches do in such situations:

He stated the obvious.

"Our guys," he acknowledged, "are squeezing their sticks a little bit." So tight, they're in danger of snapping the shafts.

As they do, the 2.25 million inhabitants of metro Vancouver begin to squeeze their throats.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Luongo
Michael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesSince Feb. 1, Roberto Luongo is 7-3 with a 2.47 goals-against average.

Vancouverites, understand, are the consensus kings and queens of Canadian casual chic. None of that stuffy Bay Street/Toronto persona. Or the rootin'-tootin' Wild West image of Calgary. Or the more old European sophistication of Montreal.

The image of Vancouverites is of walking, talking ads for Ralph Lauren. Outdoorsy, relaxed cosmopolitans communing with the great outdoors. A coffee house on virtually every corner. The let's-do-latte set.

So utterly civilized.

Well, there's nothing civil about the reaction to the quagmire their beloved Canucks are wading through -- hip-deep -- at the moment.

They've gone into crisis mode.

The populace awoke Thursday morning to discover those very Canucks -- the defending Northwest Division champions, virtually the same group that stretched eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim to five tough games in last season's Western semifinals -- underneath the West playoff fault line.

Shock set in.

Why, the Canucks had just gotten reasonably healthy. At one point this season, five of their six defensemen considered to be on par with just about any set in the NHL's Western sector (Anaheim holding an ironclad lock on that particular distinction) were missing. They lost both Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa in one night on Nov. 1. (In contrast, the Calgary Flames have been blessed to keep their core group up and running all season long.)

Yet they've overcome a 5-8-0 start and another rough stretch that saw them lose 10 of 12 in January mainly, it must be said, on the strength of Roberto Luongo's goaltending.

And now, Mattias Ohlund is gone indefinitely with a knee injury. Sigh!

These Canucks certainly seem to do things the hard way.

"I wish I knew why, but I really don't," Canucks center Brendan Morrison told The Vancouver Sun. "It's a little bit of everything. All these things -- desperation, fear -- these are things everyone who wants to be successful should show on a daily basis. Some situations, it's magnified and there's more urgency.

"And that's where we're at right now."

On the outside, looking up.

Vigneault's life has gone from Jack Adams to Charles Addams. No goals have been scored by captain Markus Naslund or Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the past six games. Taylor Pyatt hasn't scored in 13 starts.

The Western Conference standings are beginning to resemble a clogged drain. And the Canucks, to the utter disbelief of many, are in danger of being caught and mangled in the garburator.

And the jumble only seems to be intensifying. If having Colorado surging and Nashville refusing to pack up wasn't bad enough, the Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks also have sprung to life, staggering Dallas and Anaheim, respectively.

Budding mathematicians already suggest Vancouver needs to win 10 of its remaining 16 games to land a playoff spot and avoid ridicule. Remember, it wasn't very long ago when the Canucks were riding high on a four-game winning streak.

And then …

A 3-2 shootout loss to the Avs? OK, understandable. A 3-2 overtime loss to the deadline-depleted, non-playoff Columbus Blue Jackets? Worrying. A 4-1 pasting in Chicago, a game in which the Canucks generated a pathetic 10 shots on goal? They hit the nadir.

"That was embarrassing, that's what it was," Naslund said in a shroud-like dressing room at the United Center.

At least the effort was better the next time out, but the result was distressingly familiar, a 2-1 loss to those troublesome Avs.

As invariably happens to any team in the throes of self-analysis, everyone and anyone is more than willing to theorize on the troubles. A familiar line of complaints is forthcoming -- the Sedin twins unable to shine in physically demanding games, Naslund's leadership qualities, etc.

One recurring theme is the Canucks lack that centerpiece player -- a Jarome Iginla, a Daniel Alfredsson, a Nicklas Lidstrom -- to lash them to their backs and drag them along when times get hard. Their inspiration, their leader, plays in goal. In Luongo, they possess arguably the most valuable individual in the game today.

But even in goaltender-propelled success stories, there's plenty of outside support from dominating individuals to step up and assume the mantle. In New Jersey, for instance, Martin Brodeur had Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens to lean on and lead from out front. In Denver, Patrick Roy had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Ray Bourque.

The Canucks lean strictly on Luongo. It's a structure built carefully from the back out. When they manage to score two goals, they get at least a point. When they score three, they usually win. Right now, they're having a devil of a time scoring two.

Another undeniable component of the problem is the timing of the semi-sag. The Canucks began to slide immediately after Dallas bulked up with Brad Richards (a target of Vancouver GM Dave Nonis, by the way) at the trade deadline, San Jose improved its defense by snaring Brian Campbell out of Buffalo and, most worrisome, division rival Colorado added a couple of fabled old warriors, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote, for the final push.

In contrast, the Canucks were perceived to have dithered and failed.

Sixteen games remain to keep the ship from running aground on the rocks. The Canucks' last nine games are against divisional opponents, and they've pieced together a fine 12-6-5 record against the Northwest so far. That, at least, is encouraging.

The unpredictability out west is also in their favor. One night can thrust you into hell, the next raise you up to heaven. Two points would seem like nothing to make up. And yet …

The Canucks' confidence, and that of their rabid fan base, has unquestionably taken a hit this past week.

"They're good hockey players," Vigneault said. "They're in a little funk right now, but they're good hockey players and good people and I'm confident they're going to come out of it soon."

That's stating the obvious, too.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.