Scuffling Canucks battling obstacles early on

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

CHICAGO – Duncan Keith(notes) fired the puck up ice, and Marian Hossa(notes) broke in alone. The fans rose to their feet at the United Center. Hossa had a chance to give the Chicago Blackhawks a dramatic overtime victory over the rival Vancouver Canucks, a team that needed no more drama.

Then goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) got his blocker on the shot, and the puck fluttered straight up into the air harmlessly. No, the Canucks didn't come back and win Wednesday night. Luongo failed to stop all three shots he faced in the shootout, and the Canucks lost 2-1. But after all they've been through lately – Luongo struggling, the defense hobbling, forward Rick Rypien(notes) crossing the line by grabbing a fan, the team losing three out of four games – even a little heroics go a long away.

"Obviously our guys bounced back and played a real strong game against the Stanley Cup champions," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said.

This was as big as a game gets in October. This was the defending champion Blackhawks against the Canucks, whom they had eliminated from the playoffs each of the past two seasons – whom many have picked to dethrone them this season. All defending champions talk about having targets on their backs. This was the first time the 'Hawks really felt the weight.

"We haven't really felt that extra pressure yet, but this is one of those games where this team will definitely remember what happened last year and the year before that," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews(notes) said before the game. "They'll want to win this one. So I think we've got to feel the same way on our side."

But these weren't the Canucks those prognosticators have picked.

Luongo? He had lost three in a row and been pulled the night before after allowing six goals on 18 shots in a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild, a team that was so desperate its coach, Todd Richards, had just put his players through a bag skate.

The two defensemen the Canucks added in the offseason? The guys who are supposed to give them the grit they have lacked in the past? The guys whose durability was supposed to be a big asset? Well, Keith Ballard(notes) and Dan Hamhuis(notes) both continued to sit out with injuries.

Rypien? He was suspended for his actions at Minnesota, when he came off the ice after a fight and grabbed a clapping Wild fan.

The Canucks limped into Chicago. They didn't skate in the morning. General manager Mike Gillis spent much of the day with Rypien, trying to digest what had happened.

"He was reluctant to talk about things," Gillis said. "I'm not sure that the full impact had been felt yet, but he's coming along. … Obviously he regrets what's occurred."

The situation remains black and white: A player cannot touch a fan, and Rypien deserves a stiff suspension. But the perception might be colored the more people learn about the fan's reaction and Rypien's background.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune tracked down the fan, James Enquist, a 28-year-old from Mendota Heights, Minn. Enquist said this was his only taunt: "Way to be professional." But he also said he was "definitely" seeking legal representation and that he was "assaulted."

Huh? How? Did Rypien stretch his Wild sweater or something? All he did was grab him, shake him and let go.

And all the threat of legal action does is help make Rypien a sympathetic figure. Rypien had to fight to make it to the NHL – going undrafted, signing a minor-league contract. He scored in his first NHL game but suffered a broken fibula in his fifth. He went through a string of injuries afterward – thumb, groin, finger, hernia – and took a lengthy leave of absence because of it during the 2008-09 season. Now he might be remembered forever for a split-second of stupidity.

"He hasn't let anybody down," Gillis said. "You know, sometimes in the heat of the moment, things occur that are totally out of character and unexpected."

Amid the turmoil, Vigneault turned back to Luongo. He said he left the rink Tuesday night knowing he would start him in Chicago and told him on the team bus.

"It was nice to play right away," Luongo said. "I wasn't very satisfied with myself after last night's game. It was nice to be able to get back right in there right away and just feel a little bit better about yourself."

In the end, that's all this game was about. Feeling a little better. The 'Hawks won their fourth straight, a confidence boost for a team that lost 10 members of its Cup group because of salary-cap constraints. The Canucks played hard and well to the end despite the back-to-back, with Daniel Sedin(notes) tying the score early in the third period, with the penalty killers coming up big later in the final period, with Luongo stoning Hossa in OT.

"It was one of those games where we kind of felt we deserved better," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa(notes) said. "We played our style of road game, the game we've been looking to find – something to definitely build on."

But both teams will be measured ultimately by the playoffs, and so neither will know anything for months. The teams split their two games in each city each of the past two seasons, and the result was the same in the playoffs: The 'Hawks beat the Canucks in the second round.

For the Canucks, there is a lot of business to conduct in the interim. Gillis expects he and Rypien to meet Friday in New York with commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell. Meanwhile, his team will play its next game that night in Vancouver against – guess who? – the Minnesota Wild.

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