It was only the first game of their opening round playoff series, but the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings Wednesday was a harbinger of things to come – and not a good one. In fact, with the way they lost – looking undisciplined and unable to match their opponents’ desperation level – I’m now more confident than ever the team that fell just one win short of a Stanley Cup championship last season is headed for a first-round defeat.
“Wait!” some of you might be saying right now, “You’re jumping off the Nucks’ bandwagon after just one game!” However, that’s simply not true. I never boarded it to begin with. Before the playoffs began, I predicted the Kings would beat Vancouver in seven games. A sizeable portion of that decision was predicated on L.A. playing with playoff hockey intensity since the end of February, in order just to qualify for the post-season. Another part was the tentative playing status of Canucks star Daniel Sedin.
But it was more than that. To me, the biggest reason to be cynical about Vancouver’s chances this season is the tremendous psychological weight the team bears – a weight that has an additional ton added to it with every day that passes. This is not a team whose key players are known for responding ideally to pressure, so when you wrap your mind around how difficult it is to get within 60 minutes of hockey’s ultimate glory, lose, then try and re-climb that mountain, it is no surprise they might lose their way on the ascent.
Wilting under the pressure can manifest in many ways for a group of athletes. In Game 1, it revealed itself in the Canucks’ utter inability to maintain their composure. Whether it was Byron Bitz boarding Kyle Clifford, Ryan Kesler flopping around like a pro wrestler, or the eight power plays they handed L.A., Vancouver looked like a team that was engaged in its virginal post-season experience, not the defending Western Conference champions.
Compounding the Canucks woes are their highly emotional fans, who at this stage have developed a hair-trigger capacity for worrisome navel gazing and out-and-out panic. You can’t fault them for their devotion, but many of them remind me of the weirdo members of the public who stalked one of the Jersey Shore weirdos. The undying love of some of the team’s fans has overwhelmed their capacity for reason and created a burr in the subconscious saddle of some Vancouver players who know their every eye twitch and bodily movement will be hyper-examined and deconstructed in a way few other NHLers have to deal with.
Sure, when you’re swimming in a fishbowl, the eyes focused upon you don’t change the fact you have to move through the water the same way. But when the eyes outside the bowl never stop staring, you can’t convince me the fish doesn’t get more than a little self-conscious. Canucks players are professionals, but they’re also human – and as the walls close in they fully understand how much those walls mean to the community, as well as the ramifications that surely will follow their collapse.
Just before the playoffs began, I asked Twitter users which participating team could least afford a first-round loss. Although there were a wide variety of answers – including the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks – the most common answer was Vancouver. You needn’t be a booster of that franchise to see why. Whether it’s the future of Roberto Luongo and the increasingly large shadow of Cory Schneider that could push him out of town this summer, Alain Vigneault’s coaching tenure that almost assuredly will end or the aspersions that’ll be cast (unfairly, in my opinion) on the Sedin Twins’ killer instinct, the results of a Canucks loss would be devastating on a number of levels and force GM Mike Gillis to a crossroads with his roster.
This isn’t a city nor an organization that can follow the patient path set out by Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who has resisted constant calls for change to his team’s core. Vancouver fans would be incensed to see the Canucks brought back intact next season after a first-round loss, even though that’s quite likely, given Gillis has already locked in $55 million in cap space for 2012-13. The mental pressures would exhaust Vancouver players prior to the season even beginning.
If ever there was an all-or-nothing-looking team, it’s this year’s Canucks. And after one game, at least, the nothing part of the equation looks increasingly likely.
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