VANCOUVER, B.C. – You can forgive Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault for his cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile.
Not only was Mats Sundin’s debut with the NHL club a success but all-star goalie Roberto Luongo is practising again with his teammates after missing 22 games with a groin injury.
But while Sundin will likely be limited to the 15 minutes of ice time he had in Wednesday’s 4-2 road win over Edmonton for the next few games, Luongo’s return to game action is uncertain.
Luongo held out hope Thursday that he could be back before the Jan. 21-27 all-star break.
And while he was stopping shots in a controlled practice environment that did not include odd-man rushes that would tax his lateral movement, Sundin was working hard on special teams and situational play.
Vigneault said that after a game and three full practices it’s easy to see improvement in the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain and all-time scorer.
“You can see every day he’s getting more fluid, the hands are getting a little bit quicker, softer,” Vigneault said. “He’s on the right track.”
And other teams, like the St. Louis Blues who play here Friday and the San Jose Sharks, who face the Canucks on Saturday (10 p.m. ET), could be picking their poison with Sundin in the lineup.
Do they continue to focus on stopping Sedin twins Daniel and Henrik with Pavol Demitra? Or concentrate on Sundin with Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond on his wings.
“They’re going to have to figure out if they want to go size against Mats or size against (the Sedins) … or whatever, it gives us more options,” Vigneault said. “So it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds.”
Vigneault created a play-by-play man’s worst nightmare Wednesday when Sundin joined the Sedins for a couple of power plays. He also had Mattias Ohlund and Alex Edler on the points for an all-Swedish lineup.
While Sundin didn’t have a shot on goal, he said Thursday he felt good physically and the key will be shaking off the rust that accumulated after more than nine months away from the NHL.
“I felt good in the battles,” he said. “I felt strong.
“The biggest thing is timing when you’re in situations around the net passing and shooting and making plays.”
Raymond noticed Sundin, 37, was starting line changes a little sooner than he expected but he’s feeling like a lottery winner playing with the six-foot-five, 231-pound veteran who holds the Leafs’ all-time scoring record with 555 goals and 1,321 points.
“You feel pretty lucky when every day when you wake up you’ve got Mats Sundin playing the middle with you,” said the speedy Raymond, who will be looking for Sundin’s big body to open more ice for him. “You want to take full advantage of it and keep playing hard.”
Sundin’s insertion into the lineup also had a trickle-down effect allowing Steve Bernier to join Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler on the checking line. Bernier scored twice in 12 seconds Wednesday and Burrows also found the net.
“It gives us a chance to play against the third and fourth defencemen on the other team,” said Bernier, who doubled the scoring output of his previous 20 games. “It’s helping us having more scoring chances and better match-ups.”
Even though his all-star game sweater was hanging in his locker, Luongo said no timetable has been set for his return.
“My main focus is getting back in the lineup and making sure that when I do, it’s the right time,” he said. “If it happens to be before the all-star game and I’m feeling good, I’d love to represent my team in my home town.”
Luongo, who averages 75 starts a season, still shares the NHL shutout lead with five and was at the peak of his game when the injury occurred.
He had also blanked opposition shooters for 232 minutes 36 seconds to top his club record of 201:08 without being scored upon.
“He looked good out there,” Burrows said of Luongo’s 25-minute participation in practice. “He’s great, he’s strong and he’s going to be a huge addition to our hockey team.”
Luongo left the ice with a grin on his face and said he’s pain free and not holding back to make kick saves.
“As far as timing, I don’t know what it’s going to feel like until I get into full practice and I’m sure it’s going to be a bit of a battle at the beginning because being away for six weeks its not something easy to jump right in to,” he said.
He’s the only Canuck selected for the all-star game but Vigneault said the only way he’ll participate is if he plays for Vancouver first.
“If he’s ready a couple of games before that … he’ll play but the Canucks come first.”
NOTES: Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa missed practice Thursday to attend to personal issues … Vigneault said he’ll be back on the ice Friday morning.