The game, two years ago, would have been a marquee matchup, the Vancouver Canucks hosting the Detroit Red Wings, a late-season tilt of two titans.
On Saturday night in Vancouver, there was nothing of that sort of lustre, even though the game meant a lot to both sides, the Canucks looking to conjure momentum as the playoffs rapidly approach and the Red Wings facing the prospect of missing the postseason for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
In the first period, even as the Canucks opened the scoring, the home team managed to register just four shots on Detroit’s Jimmy Howard – and three of them came on the power-play, meaning Vancouver put just one single puck on the net at even strength. There was simply no real sense of urgency, mission or potency.
In the second, after tying the score at one in the final moments of the first, Detroit demonstrated little momentum and matched Vancouver’s lack of potency of the previous period, as the Red Wings put just four pucks at Cory Schneider in the Canucks crease. Vancouver didn’t get much better. At the halfway mark of the game, the Canucks had a grand total of seven shots.
In the third, the Canucks discovered new depths, putting two – only two – shots on Howard. It wasn’t exactly the kind of hockey that drives a team deep into springtime hockey. It was the Wings, with a lot more at stake, who brought the significant pressure, with numerous pushes by Pavel Datsyuk, with the Canucks’s leaning heavily on Schneider to keep them in the game in the final moments. Detroit outshot Vancouver 17-2 in the third. Not good.
At the end, it went to a shootout – and Vancouver won it, as Max Lapierre scored on a backhand, the only goal of the shootout. With the win the team officially qualifies for the playoffs and the loss leaves Detroit stuck in ninth, though the Wings are now within one point of the eighth-place Columbus and have a game in hand.
For Vancouver, with a week left in the regular season, the Canucks hardly look hardy, even though the team will likely win a fifth consecutive Northwest Division title. They were so-so against relatively easy competition on the recent five-game roadtrip and the Detroit outing does not seem to bode well for a lengthy postseason run. Real competition arrives shortly, the Chicago Blackhawks in town on Monday, followed by the Anaheim Ducks – the third-best team in the league – on Thursday.
After the game, however, the spirits were relatively good. The team made the playoffs -- and that's what important, the refrain went. Owner Francesco Aquilini was the locker room, smiling, and congratulated the team captain, Henrik Sedin, with a hand shake.
Sedin, on the night's performance, called it a "big step in the right direction" for the team. Later, Alain Vigneault, asked about the team's lack of offence pop, focused on clinching a postseason berth, noting the the team has struggled with some injuries through the year and highlighting the the likes of a quality team such as Detroit might miss the grade this year.
"It's not easy to get into the playoffs," said Vigneault.
Amid the muck of relatively unimpressive hockey – notwithstanding the still-strong play of Schneider – one positive to mark is that Vancouver’s power play appears to have found some life, which is one piece of good news for the team as it trundles towards the playoffs without looking particularly strong. On the man-advantage, the season opened reasonably well for Vancouver, going 13-for-68 – 19.1 per cent – in the first 15 games but then it fell apart, with a nadir of 11-consecutive games without a power-play goal. But on the recent, uneven five-game road trip, the power play was somewhat revived, producing four goals in 15 opportunities, pulling up the season-to-date tally to 22-for-149 – 14.8 per cent.
On Saturday, it was one-for-four, delivering the only goal for Vancouver in regulation. Alex Burrows drew back-to-back penalties, about a minute apart, in the middle of the first period, which produced Vancouver’s first goal. The Canucks produced consistent pressure, even if they didn’t deliver a flurry of shots, even as they had 47-seconds of five-on-three time. But just as they couldn’t convert with the two-man advantage, a slap shot from defenceman Alex Edler near the end of the first penalty got by Howard, five hole, as Burrows employed a successful screen.
The lead didn’t stand long, though, which was a problem that dogged Vancouver through its recent road trip. With just 21 seconds left in the first period, Cory Emmerton scored a beauty, a great deflection of a Damien Brunner shot. The Wings had pressure on the Canucks and the home team couldn’t clear, and Brunner got a shot off from near the boards and Emmerton, with his back to the net and seeing it the whole, deflected the puck and it got by Schneider, between his glove and left pad.