VANCOUVER – Goaltender Roberto Luongo must play better if the Vancouver Canucks hope to end their recent slide and remain in the playoff hunt, coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday.
The Canucks have lost six of their last seven games and tumbled into eighth spot in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Vigneault raised eyebrows after practice when he suggested his all-star goaltender needs to improve his game if the Canucks hope to pull out of their spiral.
“He’s our best player,” said Vigneault. “We need him to be at the best.”
Since a Jan. 8 shootout win over the New York Islanders, Vancouver has lost to San Jose, Phoenix, Columbus, Los Angeles and Minnesota. They were beaten in a shootout by Detroit and defeated St. Louis in a shootout.
“When we were on a winning run we were getting a little bit more timely saves,” Vigneault said. “With Roberto, and when we use Curtis (Sanford, the Canucks backup), it’s been a little more challenging that way, for what ever reason.
“I know Roberto really wants to get on the same roll he was on prior to this. He would probably be the first one to tell you that since probably the Islanders game, the goaltender he has faced . . . has probably had a slight edge there.”
Vancouver’s last two losses have come at home. The Canucks were beaten by 4-3 by the cellar-dwelling Kings on Saturday and 4-2 by the Wild one day later, with the final goal being scored into an empty net.
In these two games the Canucks have outshot their opponents 86-50.
Luongo didn’t appear in the Canucks dressing room after practice. Later he walked by reporters without stopping to talk.
Luongo, in his second season in Vancouver since being obtained in a trade from Florida, has a 21-16-4 record, a 2.11 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. His six shutouts put him just one behind league leader Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Vancouver holds the last playoff spot in the telephone booth that is the NHL’s Western Conference with a 25-19-5 record for 55 points.
Heading into Tuesday the Canucks were three points ahead of Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus. They also were just two points behind division-leading Minnesota, who held down the third seed in the conference.
Vancouver plays St. Louis at GM Place on Wednesday night.
The Canucks have struggled to score goals all season. In the Canucks’ last 16 games they have scored two goals or fewer nine times. They are also 0-17-1 when trailing after two periods.
That means Vancouver has a very narrow margin for victory and need Luongo to play his best every night, said Vigneault.
“You cannot win . . . in today’s hockey without good goaltending,” he said. “You have to have very good to great goaltending to win. That’s the game.
“The one guy that can make a huge difference, and it’s a lot of pressure, it’s the goaltender.”
Captain Markus Naslund said the Canucks have been guilty of leaving Luongo out to dry by giving up too many good scoring chances.
“He’s facing breakaways every night,” said Naslund, who has scored two goals in the last seven games. “He’s saving a lot of them but he can’t stop them all.”
The Canucks defence has also been a rotating door. Kevin Bieksa is out indefinitely with a lacerated calf muscle. Mattias Ohlund just returned to the lineup after suffering a concussion only to have Willie Mitchell miss the last two games with a back problem.
Up front, the Canucks have also lost centre Brendan Morrison with a wrist injury.
Naslund said the Western Conference is so tight it’s too early for the Canucks to panic about missing the playoffs.
“I don’t think panicking is going to get you anywhere,” he said. “We have to realize the situation we are in and play with a little more desperation.
“You have to be relaxed and not just look the thing that are negative and the teams that are chasing you. You have to look ahead and look for the positives.”
It isn’t the first time this season that Vigneault has publicly challenged one of his players. Earlier he said Mitchell needed to play better.
Vigneault also insisted he is confident Luongo will bounce back.
“I would bet he’s going to get on a roll here soon,” said Vigneault, the NHL’s coach of the year last season. “Right now it’s a little bit more challenging for what ever reason. He can’t explain it, I can’t explain it.
“If I had money to bet, I’d bet he’s going to get on one of those rolls again and we’re all going to benefit from it.”
Luongo has already said he will skip the Jan. 27 all-star game in Atlanta to spend time with his pregnant wife, Gina, at their off-season home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The baby is due in April.
Luongo has also been given permission by the Canucks to miss Vancouver’s first game after the all-star break, Jan. 29 at home against Dallas.