VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks play the Calgary Flames for pride instead of a playoff berth Saturday night because injuries to key defencemen destroyed their identity as a shut-down team and a tough opponent.
“I think that’s maybe part of it,” veteran forward Trevor Linden said Friday when asked why the Canucks missed the NHL playoffs for the second time in three years. “I think when you talk about identity, this team’s based on goaltending and defence, which it should be.
“Its strength is really the guys on the blue-line. It’s tough when, that being your strength, you’ve got less than half your guys playing.”
Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Lukas Krajicek missed a total of 123 games through injury. Players who filled in for them were on the shelf for an additional 39 games.
Willie Mitchell, who routinely faces the opposition’s top line, had rookies and minor-league call-ups for partners.
Offence from the back end was down, too. Ohlund, Salo and Bieksa combined to score 37 goals last season. That dropped to 19 in 2007-08.
“For those guys for them to get some continuity in their game … when your team strength is your blue-line and your goaltender … the mix we had back there …” said a sombre Linden, who struggled for words and with questions about the possibility that Saturday’s game might be his last.
“Our game was a shut-down defence type of game that prided themselves on not allowing chances. We didn’t do a good job of that, especially down the stretch.”
Linden, the 19-year veteran who declined to discuss his future, was one of the few Canucks who tried to explain Vancouver’s 1-6 meltdown in the drive for a playoff berth.
Expectations were high on the West Coast after the Canucks had a club record 49 wins and 105 points while winning the Northwest Division and a playoff round last season.
There was still a chance for redemption on Thursday. Calgary lost to the Minnesota Wild and Vancouver needed to beat Edmonton for a win-and-you’re-in game against the Flames on Saturday.
Instead, the Canucks lost 2-1 and before Friday’s play there was a possibility they could drop as low as 11th in the West. Thoughts of the post-season were as cold as the rain falling outside GM Place.
“Right now, I can’t think straight,” centre Ryan Kesler said after coach Alain Vigneault ended a string of optional practices in an effort to bring his players out of a funk. “To come up with answers as to why we couldn’t pull it off … I can’t give you one.”
Roberto Luongo, arguably outplayed by the opposing goalie in three losses and yanked in two others while commuting to Florida for his daughter’s birth after wife Gina’s delicate pregnancy, was also struggling with the early end to his season.
“I don’t really have an answer,” said Luongo, who will face the Flames on Saturday.
“I try to bring my best to the table every day. I tried to make the most out of a tough situation for myself and obviously it didn’t work out as well as I hoped it would.”
Captain Markus Naslund, who earns $6 million a year and is an unrestricted free agent on July 1, said the Canucks’ lack of depth couldn’t cover up the injuries.
“Without making any excuse, we’re obviously not deep enough or as strong if we don’t have a healthy lineup,” said Naslund, who dismissed questions about playing his last game here. “We missed key guys all year and it really has hurt us.”
And there was little scoring help at the trade deadline.
“You always want to have the best possible team,” Naslund said. “From what I understand there were no deals that made sense and they didn’t want to risk the future and you’ve got to respect that.”
But that put pressure on players who were expected to score, like Naslund and the Sedin twins, a $13-million line that was blanked during a five-minute power play against the Oilers.
Despite enjoying nearly 18 minutes with the man advantage in that game, Vancouver could only manage an Alex Burrows power-play goal.
“That’s part of the deal,” Naslund said of the scoring load. “You have a few guys who have to do the bulk of the scoring … that’s the nature of the beast.”
Burrows said the Canucks had too many games where little things went wrong.
“It didn’t take much,” he said. “We were in every game, played hard, wanted to do well but for some reason some nights we couldn’t score goals or special teams weren’t good. Some other nights their goalie was just standing on his head or we weren’t getting the bounces.
“All those things together at the end of the year … now we just have to move on.”