VANCOUVER, B.C. – Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault likens his teams’ struggles to that of a golfer trying to turn around his game.
That analogy might prove to be prophetic – unless there’s a turnaround, the Canucks could be booking their own tee times when the NHL playoffs begin April 15.
Despite adding prized free-agent forward Mats Sundin and welcoming back goaltender Roberto Luongo from a serious groin injury, Vancouver is suffering through a seven-game losing streak that has seen the team slip all the way to 10th in the Western Conference standings.
“It’s a little bit like playing golf,” Vigneault told a packed media scrum Thursday. “If you’re hooking the ball with your driver every time you take it out, maybe on the second nine, if you want to score, you’ve got to take out the three-wood.
“Right now we’re trying to simplify it a bit and go to our strengths and by doing that, you find your game and you get your confidence to where it should be and you get back on the right track.”
The Canucks’ confidence is in tatters and they were booed off the ice Wednesday night after a 5-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, a club-record eighth consecutive home defeat. One month to the day after Sundin arrived in Vancouver with his US$5.6-million contract, the Canucks are 1-5-2 with the big Swede in the lineup.
“It’s definitely not a perfect way to start a season but, hey, things happen in sports you can’t control and you’ve got to do the best with the situation you’re in,” said Sundin, who played with at least seven different linemates Wednesday.
“We have one of the best goaltenders in the league, a solid defence and forwards that can score but obviously the way the play has been the last couple of weeks is not good enough.”
Frustration boiled over in practice when veteran Willie Mitchell and rookie Mason Raymond got sticks up and jousted in front of the net. NHL penalty leader Shane O’Brien added some pushing and shoving.
“We’re doing a lot of good things but we need to crank it up so sometimes there’s a little spillover there,” Mitchell said of the incident. “We need to be practising the way we want to compete in a game.”
O’Brien said hits in practice don’t matter.
“It matters when we’re playing other teams,” he said. “We can hit each other all we want but we have to be a better hockey team.”
Luongo, who has lost five straight starts since returning from a groin injury, welcomed the emotion in practice.
“Sometimes you’ve got to play with fire,” said Luongo, whose last win came Nov. 19. “A little fire in the stomach, go out there and lay it on the line.”
Vancouver was third in the Western Conference before his injury but have since dropped seven spots. The Dallas Stars are two points behind with three games in hand.
The Canucks have found various ways to lose, most notably giving up power-play goals.
The Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators – owners of the three worst power-play units in the league – went a combined 6-for-13 with the man advantage in Vancouver’s last three home defeats.
Sundin has been held to just two goals and an assist, has been in the penalty box for three game-winning goals and was serving a cross-checking minor when Nashville tied the game.
Vancouver nearly knocked off the front-running San Jose Sharks before the all-star break but Sundin was foiled on a breakaway with a chance to make it 2-0.
The Sharks tied it with 40 seconds left in regulation and won 2-1 on an overtime power play.
“Obviously it hasn’t been up to par,” Sundin, averaging a point a game in his 1,300-game career, said of his performance this season. “Knowing myself, I expect to be more productive than I have so far.”
Sundin, who finished Wednesday’s game skating with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows, said he has found his comeback a challenge.
“I feel my skating hasn’t been all that bad but obviously the production has got to get going.”
Vigneault, who is fending off questions about his job security, said Sundin is improving daily.
“It’s not easy to step back in the game after being out for so long,” Vigneault said.
“It’s unfortunate that some of his penalties have hurt the team a little bit but it seems right now we’re going through a couple of growing things that I feel are going to make us a better team in the future if we ride it out and stick together.”
General manager Mike Gillis, who signed Vigneault to a one-year contract extension through next season, said he was shocked when a TV analyst suggested his coach is headed for the chopping block.
“Our relationship is one that is very positive and very up front and if he tells you he’s shocked, I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say,” Vigneault said. “People can speculate and say what they want.”