There wasn’t a Maple Leaf in sight.
Three minutes into the second period, the Vancouver Canucks already up 2-0 on visiting Toronto, winger Alex Burrows took a pass from Daniel Sedin. Burrows, on the edge of the faceoff circle, was extraordinarily open, so much so he had what seemed like a week to compose the wrist shot that he lasered by Toronto’s helpless James Reimer.
A raucous affair broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada - the crowd exchanged “Go Leafs Go!” and “Leafs suck!” chants with vigour - the thumping win was an impressive showcase by Vancouver, a team that has not lost in regulation time in 35 days.
The tilt ended 6-2 in the home side’s favour, a exclamation on a dozen-game run during which the Canucks have gone 9-0-3. It was an imperfect month rather than a stretch of utter dominance- the Canucks often needed overtime or a shootout - but against the Leafs it was full burners-on.
“It hasn’t been a perfect month but we’re getting results,” said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who scored his sixth goal of the season in the third period.
The makings of Saturday’s night big win had percolated in recent days, said Bieksa, as the “mentally tough” Canucks are consistently able to fix holes in their play.
For the Leafs, the loss is a hard one, the second time in three games the team has been decisively beaten up on a short road trip through Western Canada. The ‘L’ sends the team home with an ever-more tenuous hold on the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But the Leafs did have some luck Saturday night as Tampa Bay overcame the Washington Capitals, who stand in ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Toronto.
“They really took advantage of us,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson of the Canucks’ constant pouncing on mistakes and slips. He suggested his squad was a little tired and said the plan now is to “go home and regroup.”
“We’ve got three big games at home this week,” said Wilson outside the lockerroom after the game.
Inside the near-deserted Leafs lockerroom, captain Dion Phaneuf faced the cameras, sweat dripping from his nose. Blasted by the “offensive punch” of the Canucks, Phaneuf said the Maple Leafs are hardy enough to recover this week.
“There’s no panic in our room.”
Against Vancouver, the Maple Leafs didn’t exactly looked panicked as much as out of their depth.
Outshot badly, and outplayed, in the first period, the visitors had to scrap from a position of disadvantage almost from the start.
There was brief hope in the second, with the score 3-1. On a power play, a rebound on a Joffrey Lupul shot popped right to Kessel but he fanned, unable to hit any inch of the acres of open net available, the dribbling puck stopped by a scrambling Roberto Luongo.
Soon thereafter, at the other side of the rink, a scrappy pass from Henrik Sedin on the boards landed right on his brother Daniel’s stick. Daniel, much like Burrows before him, was wholly free of any Leafs pressure and put a blast past Reimer’s blocker.
With that, Toronto coach Ron Wilson had seen enough of Reimer’s so-so work, sending Jonas Gustavsson out to take on the Canucks’ assault.
The win means Vancouver keeps pace with the NHL- and Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings. The Canucks, with a game in hand on the Wings, remains two points behind Detroit and are No 2 in the league, one point ahead of the New York Rangers.
And, oh, Vancouver fans, if you were wondering about that Sedins’ slump, fret no more. The 31-year-old twins, together, had managed just 23 points in 18 games in 2012. Saturday night, Daniel had four points (one goal, three assists) and Henrik four (all assists). It is a testament to the Canucks’ prowess - and especially to recent goaltending from Luongo- that Vancouver is 13-2-4 in 2012, without much help from their first-line stars.
“The big guy does what he’s been doing for a long time: stop the puck,” said Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault of Luongo after the game.
Maybe it was all to be expected. The Leafs’ showing of late has not been playoff worthy and the Canucks have bedevilled Toronto for years now, 10 consecutive wins, after Saturday’s ‘W’.
“Go Leafs Go!”
The chants pounded out even before the puck was dropped Saturday.
“Leafs suck! Leafs suck!”
The obvious rejoinder responded immediately.
So it always is when the Maple Leafs hit the road in Canada.
Even though the hockey club has not made the playoffs since they last won in Vancouver - 2003-2004 - devotees of the team are a sizable force across this country, supporting their boys in blue when taking on Canadian rivals outside Toronto.,
“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” said Kessel on Friday after an early-afternoon practice.
“In Edmonton” - where the Leafs squeezed out a much-needed win in overtime - “they were loving it. The fan support for us is awesome. It’s nice to come to other rinks and get support like that. What can I say? They love us. That’s awesome. In opposing buildings, with fans like that, it gets you jacked.”
Love on the road has not translated into tangible results. The Leafs came to Vancouver 3-4 in games on the road in Canada this season, which resembles their fortunes on the road in general, 13-14-2 before Vancouver, compared with the Leafs’ strong showing for their fans back in Toronto, 16-9-4 at the Air Canada Centre.
Saturday was the usual sea of blue jerseys at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena - but Canucks players didn’t mind that a good number of those blue had a Maple Leaf on their chest, not a Canucks logo.
Luongo, on Friday after practice, said the presence of Leafs fans gets the home crowd going, too.
“The fans have a bit more” - he paused for some seconds, mulling the phrasing- “hatred. I don’t know if that’s a good word. It’s always a good game. And when the crowd is into it, it really gets the players going as well.”
The road ahead
The Canucks - after three wins in a short three games at home- spend the rest of February roadtripping, one of those long and arduous treks across the continent and back. There are six games, starting with Sunday night in Edmonton. The rest of them come fast and hard, five in eight nights, Nashville, Detroit, New Jersey, Dallas and Phoenix. “It’s only for a week’s time,” said Henrik Sedin on Friday after practice. “It’s not a problem.” He likened such time-zone hopping journeys to caring for a newborn child, the many long nights with little sleep. He’s father to two sons, the younger one turning two in May. “You get used to it.”
The road has been kind to Vancouver this season. The Canucks - unlike, say, the Red Wings- have performed well regardless of where they play, tied for first in the league with the New Rangers with 19 wins away from home.
Once back in Vancouver, come March, the schedule looks positively relaxed for the Canucks as they roll towards the playoffs. In the final 18 games from March 1, 13 are at Rogers Arena.
The Leafs’ schedule ahead is more balanced, with about half at home and half on the road. The team is back at the ACC Tuesday night, a four-game homestand, starting with the Devils, followed by the San Jose Sharks on Thursday and, next Saturday, the Washington Capitals. The Florida Panthers are the fourth squad to visit on Feb. 28.