VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -With Roberto Luongo in goal, the Vancouver Canucks believed they could compete with any team. Even the admittedly bigger, faster, more skilled Anaheim squad that eliminated them in five games of the Western Conference semifinals.
Luongo's addition genuinely made the Canucks believe they could compete for a Stanley Cup. That's why a season that exceeded outside expectations still felt like a disappointment to the players as they cleaned out their lockers three days after it ended.
"That's probably the one position you need in order to win, especially come playoff time, and we have the best goalie in the world on our team," said center Brendan Morrison. "So when you have that, you believe you can win."
It's a belief the Canucks will build around, and the key to their faster-than-expected turnaround this season. Picked by most to miss the playoffs for a second straight season, the Canucks won the Northwest Division instead, setting franchise records with 105 points and 49 wins, then advancing past the first playoff round for just the second time in 11 seasons.
They did it by transforming their style under new coach Alain Vigneault, who earned a Coach of the Year nomination by turning an underachieving team that tried to outscore its mistakes into one that succeeded with team defense. It didn't hurt that Luongo was the last line of that defense.
Acquired last summer in a five-player trade with the Florida Panthers, Luongo quickly showed he was deserving of the four-year, $27-million contract extension that followed. He smashed franchise records with 47 wins and 76 games played en route to becoming the first Canucks finalist for three major awards: the Hart Trophy as league MVP; the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender; and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the players' choice for most outstanding player.
His first career playoff game ended with a four-overtime win over Dallas and a NHL-record 76 shots faced. He made several series-saving stops in a Game 7 win over Dallas and appeared on his way to doing the same against Anaheim in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals until a rare mistake.
Luongo stopped 56 shots, 38 in the first two periods alone, before he got caught looking to the referee for a penalty in double overtime. He took his eye of the puck just long enough for Scott Niedermayer to sneak in a 60-foot wrist shot.
"I keep playing it over and over in my head," Loungo said after packing his bags. "It was a mistake obviously, but at the same time it's probably a play I've made 100 times this year. It's just a natural reaction and, unfortunately, it wasn't good timing and it cost us the game and the series."
Not that any of the other Canucks blamed Luongo, who answered any questions about how he'd hold up in his first playoffs. But one thing prognosticators got right was concerns about where the goals would come from after trading 25-goal scorer Todd Bertuzzi to acquire Luongo, and losing 33-goal scorer Anson Carter to free agency.
The Canucks averaged 2.65 goals a game in the regular season, making them the second lowest-scoring team behind New Jersey to make the playoffs. And once they made the postseason, the scoring fell off even more dramatically.
They were shut out three times by Dallas in the first round and managed just 21 goals in 12 games overall, including two into an empty net during their Game 7 win over the Stars. In 10 of their 12 playoffs games, they scored two or fewer.
The power play, middle of the pack through most of the regular season, was anemic in the playoffs, finishing 1-for-29 against Anaheim and 4-for-67 in the postseason overall.
Their top offensive combination of identical twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, both point-a-game players during the regular season, combined for just nine points in the playoffs.
Fighting a stomach virus that required intravenous treatments since the middle of the first round, the Sedins were totally dominated by Anaheim's checking line, finishing with just one goal between them and a combined minus-8 against the Ducks.
Other injuries hurt in the playoffs. Second-line winger Matt Cooke hurt his groin and center Ryan Kesler broke his finger in the first game and never returned. Morrison may need surgery for a sports hernia that slowed him the last six weeks, and offensive defenseman Kevin Bieksa missed the first three games against Anaheim with torn stomach muscles.
"When Matt and Ryan got hurt in that first game, it put our forward group in a big hole," said veteran Trevor Linden, who led the team with seven playoff points. "It would have been nice to be 100 percent healthy through the playoffs."
Even with those players back, Vancouver will have to upgrade its offense for next season, a task made tougher by the fact it already has 11 players under contact for a little more than $36 million. The salary cap is expected to rise from $44 million to between $46 million and $48 million.
"The lack of offense was the difference in the playoffs; we've got to be able to muster up more than two goals a game," said Naslund. "But there's a lot of positives this season too, starting with the way Roberto played. He's someone you can build a team around."