The sweetest words uttered in British Columbia this spring might just be "Game 5 tickets are now on sale."
After staving off elimination Wednesday night with a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, the Vancouver Canucks cling to hopes of survival as the series shifts back to Vancouver, but each team must look at their lineup and make major decisions in advance of Sunday's rematch.
The most obvious question is the one that is likely giving extreme tsuris to both head coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Mike Gillis: After watching Cory Schneider stop 62 of the last 64 shots he's faced in the playoffs (including his 43 save performance last night), is there any way the Canucks can realistically start Roberto Luongo again in this series?
The team's Game 1 and 2 losses were not entirely the fault of goaltending -- indeed, given that only two of the 7 goals scored against the $5.3 million dollar netminder came at even strength, the blame could just as easily be shared with the lackluster special teams' performances -- but there's no denying the results. Even in Game 3's 1-0 shutout loss, the Vancouver defense seemed to stiffen up and work harder on denying the Kings' time and space with Schneider in net, while Game 4 finally saw players like Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa engaging from the blue line.
One can argue that the return of Daniel Sedin to the lineup was also part of this, as the reunited top line helped to provide a sense of confidence and control to the club, or that the team's refocusing on matchups due to their status as the road team also played into the result, but one wonders about how confident the locker room actually feels about each netminder.
Another question is the role of Zack Kassian, who was on the ice for less than four minutes Wednesday night, the lowest ice time of any Vancouver player. Though the former Sabre was not expected to be a minute muncher, he was expected to provide reliable minutes while getting under the skin of players like Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown. He's failed to do so, raising the question: Should he be used in these elimination games, or would his ice time be better distributed to a bottom six player who does not bring as high a risk of being called for retaliatory penalties?
Meanwhile, Darryl Sutter and the Kings must look at their special teams, where several issues were exposed.
After doing a phenomenal job of containing the Canucks, the Kings went one-for-three on the penalty kill, a situation that could become a major Achillies heel if not corrected. Relying heavily on the same core group in all three shorthanded situations (Drew Doughty, Matt Greene, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Willie Mitchell, and Trevor Lewis), the strategy worked well when the Canucks were still trying to rework their power play on the fly, but seemed to have issues with the re-established top unit's puck movement.
Spreading out the workload in favor of players like Slava Voynov and Jeff Carter (who did see just under a minute of shorthanded time last night) might provide a better fit and add the speed needed to help break up the Sedin's passing in particular.
Los Angeles' power play is also in need of a few adjustments, most notably a quiet sit down with Mike Richards. In what was already a down season for the former Flyer, the same scenario continues to repeat: Richards moves behind or to the side of the net as part of the cycle, receives the puck, shifts to the left side of the net, and fires into the goaltender's legs or chest.
It's a strategy that may have been more effective in the Eastern Conference against goalies like Craig Anderson or Tim Thomas with a tendency to move and open up seams, but against the more anchored styles he's now facing, it has only cost opportunities, and explains why Richards is down to just three PP goals this season compared to his normal nine or ten.
With both teams adjusting to give a little more discipline (or at least a little less obvious fouls), the man advantage opportunities are going to be even harder to come by. If Richards is going to be one of their primary weapons (and his 30-plus minutes a night certainly suggests that to be the case), he cannot keep doing the same old thing. An adjustment, either in better elevation or more awareness of his teammates, might be the difference between wrapping up this series or continuing to leave the door open for a comeback.