A strong start at home last season didn’t translate in another trip to the playoffs for the Vancouver Canucks.
With a new coach and starting goaltender, the Canucks open their home schedule Friday at GM Place against the San Jose Sharks, who look to bounce back from their first loss of the season.
Last season, Vancouver (2-1-1) reeled off seven straight wins and went 13-1 to begin its home slate. A late fade—highlighted by six losses in their last eight games overall—left the Canucks out of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
In the offseason, Vancouver started its housecleaning by replacing longtime coach Marc Crawford with former Montreal coach Alain Vigneault. Top defenseman Ed Jovanovski and 33-goal scorer Anson Carter left as free agents to sign with Phoenix and Columbus, respectively.
But the biggest move was a June trade with Florida that yielded Roberto Luongo in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi and Alexander Auld. In four games with his new team, Luongo has a 1.73 goals-against average.
“I don’t think I’m playing better now than I was in Florida,” said Luongo, who had a 2.68 GAA in five seasons with the Panthers. “The circumstances are different because I think we have a better team.”
The Canucks are coming off a season-opening road trip in which they gained five of a possible eight points. In a 2-1 loss Tuesday to unbeaten Minnesota, Luongo gave up three shootout goals, including the winning tally after being deked on a backhand by Petteri Nummelin.
“I’ve just got to be a little more patient on those fakes,” said Luongo, who has just one win and a 3.56 GAA in six career games against San Jose.
Luongo also will have to try and stop last season’s league-leading goal scorer, Jonathan Cheechoo.
Cheechoo recorded his first three goals of 2006-07 for the sixth hat trick of his career in San Jose’s 6-4 loss Thursday to Edmonton. His previous five three-goal games came between Dec. 20 and April 15.
He struggled last season against the Canucks, though. His only points in four games against them last season came April 13, when he had two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win.
Behind stellar goaltending from Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose (3-1-0) was looking for its first 4-0 start in franchise history. But Nabokov allowed three goals in a 2:01 span to Ryan Smyth early in the third period as the Sharks squandered a two-goal lead.
“We have to play smarter in the third period,” said Cheechoo, who tallied a career-high 56 goals last season. “When you blow a lead like that, that’s not what you want. That’s not how you win playoff games. You have to be able to protect a two-goal lead at that point in the game. We had a few lapses.”
Toskala, who has a 2.46 GAA in two starts, almost certainly will be in net for this game. He is 2-2 with a 2.95 GAA in five lifetime starts against Vancouver.
The teams each scored 13 goals last season while splitting their four-game series.