Playing without Roberto Luongo for much of the past seven weeks certainly hasn't been easy on the Vancouver Canucks. They can only hope their star goaltender will be able to help end their slide.
Luongo is expected to make his return to the net Thursday night, when the Canucks try to avoid a fourth consecutive loss as they host the Phoenix Coyotes.
Vancouver (22-18-5) held a three-point Northwest Division lead over Calgary and had limited opponents to 2.35 goals per game entering a Nov. 22 visit to Pittsburgh. Luongo suffered a strained groin almost five minutes into that contest, although his team emerged with a 3-1 victory.
Since Luongo went down, the Canucks have dropped 15 of 24 games (9-12-3) while a combination of Curtis Sanford, rookie Cory Schneider and recently-acquired Jason LaBarbera have allowed an average of 3.0 goals. The slide has dropped Vancouver seven points behind the Flames for the Northwest lead.
The Canucks' slump has grown worse lately. They've dropped five of six overall and five in a row at GM Place, including the first three games of their current five-game homestand. Vancouver, which fell 5-3 to New Jersey on Tuesday, will now try to avoid losing six in a row at home for the first time since Nov. 3-18, 1978 - when only five players on the roster had been born.
Even though the Canucks will likely benefit from having Luongo back, the captain recognizes his presence alone can't work miracles.
"We win as a team and I'm not going to come in here and win by myself," Luongo told the Canucks' official Web site. "We need 20 guys to play as a team and play well. That's the way we've always won, and that's the way it's going to be here on out."
In anticipation of Luongo's return, the Canucks placed Sanford on waivers Wednesday morning.
Luongo has won five of his last six starts against the Coyotes, including a 1-0 shutout at home on Nov. 6 in the teams' only previous matchup this season. That contest marked the 12th loss in the last 14 trips to Vancouver for the Coyotes (21-18-5) since 2001.
Phoenix opened a four-game road swing against Northwest Division opponents with a 6-3 loss Tuesday at Minnesota. Steven Reinprecht had a goal and an assist, while captain Shane Doan added a pair of assists, but Phoenix lost for the fifth time in its last six road games.
"We had too many guys who tried to play on the outside," said Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, whose team was unable to pick up its season high-tying third straight win overall. "(Minnesota) played hard and played harder than we did. You're not successful at this level by cutting corners."
Ilya Bryzgalov had allowed only two goals in winning Phoenix's previous two games, but gave up all six tallies on 34 shots Tuesday. He made 31 saves against the Canucks earlier this season, and is only 3-3-1 in seven career meetings with Vancouver despite a 1.63 GAA.
Doan, the Coyotes' leader with 18 goals and 42 points, has four goals and nine assists in his last 12 games. However, the All-Star right wing has failed to record a point in his last three contests versus Vancouver.