-- It's an interesting dilemma for Vancouver Canucks
coach Alain Vigneault.
After a dominating 30-save performance in a 3-1 victory over the Thrashers that earned the Canucks a club record for points in a season, world-class goalie Roberto Luongo said he is playing as well as he ever has.
So with seven games remaining and the Western Conference and Presidents' Trophy races almost locked up, should Vigneault keep playing Luongo to maintain the hot streak -- or rest him with the postseason in mind?
Vigneault's answer: Stick with the plan.
"At the beginning of the season we had talked about giving him about 60 games and our backup (Cory Schneider) anywhere between 20 and 25," Vigneault said. "…I think the next game will be Schneid's 20th game, and we're going to stick to that plan."
One could deduce, then, that Luongo will get ready for the playoffs by playing.
Following up Wednesday's 2-1 victory at Detroit, second in the West, Vancouver improved to 2-0 on this four-game road trip and won for the ninth time in 10 games. The win helped the Canucks set a franchise record for points with 107. The prior club record for points was 105, set in 2006-07, and their 49 wins ties the franchise mark, which they set in '06-07 and tied last season.
The Canucks are starting to run away with the Presidents' Trophy race, as they went nine points up on Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia, and they also just need five more points to lock up the top seed in the West.
Atlanta fell to 5-3-1 in its last nine and is all but out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference -- the Thrashers fell nine points behind eighth-place Buffalo, which beat Florida 4-2.
Luongo appeared to be headed for his fourth shutout of the season until Bryan Little scored unassisted on a breakaway, helped by the Canucks' Christian Ehrhoff's misplay of the puck, with 5:30 left in regulation to cut the deficit to 2-1. The game had a furious ending with Sami Salo taking a tripping penalty at 19:43 and the Thrashers going on a 6-on-4 power play -- but Nik Antropov lost a faceoff and Alexandre Burrows scored a shorthanded, empty-net goal from 150 feet away.
"I've been on hot streaks before but I can't really compare this," said Luongo, who backstopped Canada to an Olympic gold medal last year. "I just feel like every aspect of my game is good and strong. When you're playing well technically the pucks seem to find you. That's what's going on right now."
Atlanta had three golden chances early in the second period to score, but Luongo turned them all aside.
With 17:43 left in the second, Luongo stopped Mark Stuart from close range after Rob Schremp set him up on a 2-on-1. Less than 90 seconds later, Thrashers' captain Andrew Ladd negated an icing call and sent in Blake Wheeler all alone, but Luongo again stopped that one.
"Yeah, I mean, playing deep I was able to get to those pretty easy," Luongo said.
Vancouver then took a 1-0 lead at 5:08 as Raffi Torres took advantage of an offensive zone turnover by Atlanta's Evander Kane and found Mason Raymond with a quick break-out pass. Raymond beat Thrashers goalie Chris Mason five-hole with a long wrist shot from the right wing for his 13th goal of the season.
Atlanta's last great chance of the period came with 13:36, as Luongo stopped Dustin Byfuglien's hard point shot and, with Ladd on the doorstep, then lunged forward to smother Ladd's shot with his arms before Ladd could lift the puck over him.
The Canucks made it 2-0 with 7:36 left in the period when Keith Ballard sprang Alexandre Bolduc on a rush during an Atlanta line change. Bolduc skated from the middle towards the right side to avoid a defender and roofed a backhander over Mason's glove hand for his second goal of the season.
About five minutes into the third period, Luongo made another dazzling save. He dove to his right and stopped a shot by Little seemingly with his fingertips as his stick slipped from his grasp. Luongo said that was virtually his only save of the game in which he felt out of position. On one of Atlanta's last good chances, Luongo got a little help, as Ladd hit the outside of the net on a breakaway with about eight minutes left.
In the first period, Daniel Sedin, first in the League in points, was awarded a penalty shot when Ron Hainsey tripped him. Mason, playing his second game in two days, stopped him. It was some of Atlanta's only good fortune on the night.
While mathematically still alive, Atlanta would need a miracle at this point to earn the franchise's second playoff appearance.
"Disappointing losing," Mason said. "Every time we lose, we understand our chances are slipping away. It's not where you want to be with (eight) games to play."