VANCOUVER - Now, the soul-searching begins for the Vancouver Canucks.
A season that began with considerable hype and hope ended Sunday in disappointment and dismay. The Canucks lost 2-1 in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings in the fifth game of their Western Conference quarter-final series.
The underdog Kings only qualified for the playoffs in the final days of the regular season. But they beat a favoured Canucks squad that finished atop the NHL's overall standings for the second straight season by a decisive 4-1 count in the best-of-seven series.
“We're all very disappointed with how things turned out right now, and (we're) just going to step back and figure things out,”said coach Alain Vigneault.
The early elimination was a sharp contrast to what Vigneault and GM Mike Gillis expected at the outset of the season. The Canucks were coming off a seventh-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final, and management felt minor off-season moves and the early-season addition of David Booth via trade from Florida could help them earn the additional win they needed to sip champagne from the Cup.
But questions about the team's ability to get back to the final dogged the Canucks for much of the season and they couldn't produce an adequate response at the most critical time.
The club overcame a slow start to the season as No. 1 goaltender Roberto Luongo went through his usual October funk, centre Ryan Kesler missed the first five games while recovering from off-season hip surgery and others struggled due to a Stanley Cup hangover that resulted from the long 2010-11 playoff run and reduced summer training time.
Luongo regained his form as the club won 17 of its next 25 games before Christmas. When Luongo went down with an injury between late November and early December, backup Cory Schneider played the first prolonged stretch of his NHL career and won six of the seven games he appeared in.
But there were some early signs of trouble. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who had captured the NHL scoring title the previous two seasons, respectively, struggled to put up points with the same consistency as they drew close attention from opponents.
In January, the Sedins' difficulties were overshadowed by a continued run of success. The Canucks went into Boston early in the month and beat the Bruins 4-3 with Schneider in goal.
Vancouver scored on four of 11 power-play opportunities, and players, coaches, management and fans hoped the win over Boston was a sign the Canucks had what they needed to get back to the Stanley Cup final.
The Canucks continued to win, posting impressive decisions over the likes of Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey and upstart St. Louis along the way.
But the power play declined considerably and, as the end of February approached, the Canucks began to struggle. The Sedins' scoring difficulties were felt more profoundly as their teammates failed to pick up the slack.
With the Sedins struggling, linemate Alex Burrows also saw his offensive production falter at times while playing on different lines. Kesler's output waned as the admitted streaky scorer went cold. Winger Mason Raymond, who had produced seven points in his first nine games back from a career-threatening back injury suffered in the Stanley Cup final, disappeared from the scoresheet—and became a target of fans' scorn.
Centre Manny Malhotra, never a high scorer, was also off his game due to limited summer training time following off-season surgical procedures on his damaged eye.
A lone bright spot was centre Cody Hodgson, a fan favourite who had established himself as the third-line player as a result of Malhotra's struggles. Hodgson, classified as a rookie because he hadn't played the required 25 NHL games the previous season, was also a mainstay on the second power-play unit.
He was emerging as a potential rookie-of-the-year candidate before unexpectedly being dealt to Buffalo just before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. He was the headliner in a four-player deal that brought fellow rookie Matt Kassian and offensive defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani to B.C. and sent rarely used defenceman Alex Sulzer to the Sabres.
However, the deal, designed to give the Canucks two distinct scoring lines and two well-defined checking units, had little offensive impact.
The Canucks won just three of 11 games between late February and mid-March. Then Daniel Sedin was sidelined with a concussion suffered after being elbowed by Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith. But with a resurgent Henrik Sedin making up for his brother's absence, Vancouver won eight of its last nine games to clinch top spot in the West and first overall again.
However, only one of the wins down the stretch came against a playoff team, ironically the Kings.
In the playoffs, the Canucks were unable to benefit from home-ice advantage, losing all three of their games at Rogers Arena. Vancouver dropped the first two contests by identical 4-2 scores and went 0-for-14 on the power play while also allowing two short-handed goals.
In a bid to gain momentum, Vigneault replaced Luongo, who prevented a blowout in the first game, with Schneider for the final three contests. Schneider was steady while going 1-2, but the move merely raised questions about Luongo's future.
More importantly, it didn't resolve Vancouver's main problem—a continued lack of scoring.
“Both of our goaltenders did what they were supposed to do,”said Vigneault.“They gave us a chance to win.
"Unfortunately, the rest of our game wasn't good enough.”
The Canucks managed only eight goals in the five games, relying for offence again from Henrik Sedin throughout the series and Daniel Sedin, once he returned from his concussion, for the last two games.
Traditionally, the post-season is a time when unsung heroes step to the forefront, but Vigneault's repeated calls for difference-makers to identify themselves went unanswered.
And Vancouver's lack of playoff success has created plenty of questions about the hockey club, namely the immediate future of both Luongo and Vigneault.