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Canucks' rough start results in scrutiny on goalies

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- This wasn't the start the Vancouver Canucks envisioned.

With a veteran group returning mostly intact and coming off consecutive Presidents' Trophies as the NHL's top regular season club, the Canucks were counting on continuity and experience to contribute to a strong start.

Instead they were blown out 7-3 by Anaheim in the opener Saturday before blowing a two-goal lead in a 3-2 shootout loss to Edmonton on Sunday.

With the Canucks off to an 0-1-1 start and Roberto Luongo supplanting new No. 1 Corey Schneider in the opener, the team has fallen under early scrutiny. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are already questions about a defensive corps that was supposed to be the deepest -- if not the best -- in the NHL. And their new No. 1 Cory Schneider didn't make it through two periods before surrendering the goal to the man he deposed in last year's playoffs, leading to early rumblings of a crease controversy.

Roberto Luongo, who took over for Schneider on Saturday and stayed in goal on Sunday, quickly dismissed such talk after 30 saves against the Oilers. At least the Canucks can still count on the strong friendship between their goalies.

"No matter what the roles are this year, or in the past, it's important that we got each other's backs," said Luongo, who was among the many that expected he'd never play another game for the Canucks after Schneider took his job in the playoffs and then received a new three-year, $12-million contract. "We both play for the Vancouver Canucks and we both want to win games as a team."

Head coach Alain Vigneault would not make any proclamations about his starting goaltender for Wednesday's game against Calgary, allowing the debate to fall to sports talk radio. But speaking to Luongo, you almost expect him to push for Schneider to get back in the net against the Flames.

"One game does not make a season," said Luongo, who for a second-straight night said he felt good about his game but should have stopped both pucks that beat him. "The guy has got tremendous talent, he's one of the best goalies in the League in my opinion already. That goes without saying, nothing changes."

While Schneider accepted the blame for not coming up with any "big saves" in his first season-opening start, there was plenty to go around after defensive miscues and porous penalty killing gave the Ducks too many open looks in prime scoring areas on Saturday. More games like that and it might not matter who is in goal, so the improvement -- however incremental -- against Edmonton was important.

The defense, which essentially swapped calming veteran Sami Salo for hard-shooting, prized free agent Jason Garrison last summer, looked tighter and more cohesive against the Oilers, thanks to more help from backchecking forwards.

"I think we obviously had a major improvement from last night so it was a good sign as a team," Luongo said Sunday. "I thought we deserved to win."

"No matter what the roles are this year, or in the past, it's important that we got each other's backs. We both play for the Vancouver Canucks and we both want to win games as a team."
-- Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo on teammate Cory Schneider

Still, the penalty killing, which gave up goals on all three Anaheim chances Saturday -- two of them almost immediately -- surrendered the tying marker with 5:55 left Sunday, and Luongo was also forced to turn away a handful of point-blank chances, including two in the low slot after unforced giveaways.

The power play, which scored twice in the opener, was blanked on five chances, including two that could have put the game away in the third period.

With the second line decimated by injuries to Selke Trophy winning center Ryan Kesler, who is still recovering from wrist and shoulder surgeries last summer, and power winger David Booth (groin), Vancouver can ill afford special team droughts.

"You got to give it a little bit of time," Vigneault said. "They had some good looks, they had some good opportunities. I think they are on the right track."

It would be harder to say the same thing about the team in general, unless you are using the season-opening faceplant as the early standard. And while slow starts are nothing new for the Vigneault-coached Canucks -- they are just 9-8-3 the first month of the last two seasons and ended both atop the NHL standings -- this shortened 48-game season places a bigger emphasis on a stronger start, with less time to make up points later on.

"I believe we took a step forward," Vigneault said after Sunday's shootout loss.

For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, more strides in that direction are needed.

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