Alain Vigneault’s first trip back to Vancouver since he was fired by Canucks last spring following seven years as the team’s head coach may have been emotional and about the memories.
That was in September for a pre-season game. This time, the New York Rangers bench boss is here with his team on business.
“It’s all about winning games,” said Vigneault.
The Rangers have been doing plenty of that lately.
They’ve won six of their last seven games, and are fifth in the Eastern Conference with 88 points. Well on the way to a playoff berth, as they visit the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Tuesday.
The same cannot be said for the Canucks. Their already slim playoff chances fell into decline again after a deflating 5-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on home ice Saturday. Hope has been fading fast for some time, and may be completely gone, even if the Canucks are mathematically still alive.
It’s been a dismal three months for the Canucks. On Jan. 1, they sat sixth in the Western Conference, pushing the L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks for second in the Pacific Division. They now sit 10th in the conference, five points out of a playoff spot with six games remaining.
John Tortorella, the former Rangers’ coach and in his first year with the Canucks, was suspended six games for charging the Calgary Flames dressing room after a first-period line brawl in January.
Top players Henrik and Daniel Sedin have seen their point production decrease dramatically, as well as their time off the ice with injury increase dramatically. Roberto Luongo was traded. Alex Burrows, who has been met with a broken foot, broken jaw, sprained hand and a thumb injury, went 35 games without a goal.
There’s probably something missing, too.
“It would be unfair for me to comment in any shape or form,” said Vigneault, who met with Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman and general manager Mike Gillis during Vancouver’s practice at Rogers Arena.
“I mean I’m 3,000 miles away. I have no idea what’s going on here.”
On Tuesday, the Rangers have a chance to push the Canucks even closer to the brink of elimination, while improving their already strong chances of getting into the playoffs.
The Canucks’ swoon has brought about calls for Tortorella and Gillis to lose their jobs.
The paths both coaches took to their current destinations, and just how far apart their teams are in their respective playoff hunts, only adds to the storyline.
Vigneault was canned after the Canucks were swept in the playoffs last year, and Tortorella lost his job after the Rangers were eliminated in the second round.
The Rangers then turned around and hired Vigneault, and the Canucks hired Tortorella. Almost like a trade, except coaches don’t get traded. And yet, here we are, two teams going in opposite directions.
“You guys are going to make your opinions and talk about it because it’s kind of a unique thing,” said Tortorella.
“We’re losing games, so I’m the idiot. Alain’s winning games, so he’s the smart guy. Rightfully so. When you lose games and you struggle, you’re going to get scrutinized. That’s part of the business and I should be scrutinized.
“But how you think about … style of play and all that, I think sometimes there’s not a true understanding of what’s going on. But as far as the records concerned, I get that.”
The Rangers are by no means lighting up the league this season. They’re 18th in the NHL in goals-for, at 2.64 per game. But for the advanced statistics crowd, the Rangers are fifth in the league in Fenwick-for percentage – a proxy for puck possession – at 53.5 per cent, according to Extraskater.com.
It helps having 32-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, a Vezina Trophy winner from 2012, in the crease. He’s won four of his last five starts, allowing nine goals in that span. The Rangers are also fifth in the league in goals-against.
Vigneault made the point he had to tailor his system to fit his new team, and new players. Meanwhile, the Canucks, under Tortorella, have become a team of shot-blockers, with the Sedins, when healthy, killing penalties. Vancouver’s once mighty power play is 27th in the league.
The Rangers were slow out of the gate, losing six times in their first nine games, which were all on the road.
The growing pains in New York seem to be gone.
“We had some rough patches at the start of the year. He led us through that with confidence and let us figure it out on our own,” said Rangers’ centre Brad Richards.
“Overall, since Christmas we’ve all felt like we’re playing really good hockey and we want to get in and feel like we’re a dangerous team.”