It was exactly what the Vancouver Canucks didn’t need. After avoiding the pitfalls that have sunk them so often this season – giving up the first goal, not scoring on the power play – the Canucks found a new way to hurt themselves: giving up a 2-0 lead in the third period to the visiting Phoenix Coyotes.
The Canucks, perhaps, had lulled themselves to sleep. The action on Friday night at Rogers Arena was not exactly spiked with firecrackers. Opening the night, the teams swayed back and forth, free of sizzle, or ferocity. “Is this the most boring period of the year?” wondered one wag among the reporters of press-box row, with a couple minutes to go in the first.
The tilt should have been, or at least could have been, a contest with more verve, the Coyotes and Canucks up against each other in the difficult and tight Western Conference. And at each end, a man who could be one of three goaltenders for Canada in Sochi, Roberto Luongo in net for Vancouver, and Mike Smith for Phoenix.
The game was hardly played in slow motion – but also played without any particular highlights: early in the third period, the two teams scratched at the puck in the corner of the Phoenix end for upwards of half a minute, an oddly extended session. It was early-December hockey. It is a long season.
The Canucks managed to mangle it. Phoenix, down 2-0, pressed. Vancouver’s Brad Richardson on a breakaway had a chance midway through the third to put his team up 3-0 but couldn’t beat Smith and then the visiting team struck back, centre Antoine Vermette delivering a popper of a rising slap shot from the blue line that got by Luongo and snapped the shutout. Two minutes later David Moss tied the game, hacking the puck in from in front, with a bunch of Canucks hanging around, looking confused and helpless.
Redemption came in overtime. Chris Higgins raced down the ice after a Phoenix turnover and a wrist shot from the faceoff dot snuck through the body and left arm of Smith, 3-2 Vancouver.
It was a bitter-tinged victory, nearly losing after having a solid lead. The Canucks have been poor at closing games this year.
"I'm happy we won but I can't stand the way we won," said coach John Tortorella after the game.
Winger Jannik Hansen said: "For some reason, we've let teams into the game. It's something we definitely need to correct."
Luongo had a more positive take: "It's a good win for us as far as being able to respond."
Even if they did it the hard way, the win lifts Vancouver back towards the playoff picture in the West for the first time in several weeks after exile stuck in ninth place. True, they remain in ninth but their 37 points are tied with the Coyotes, who have two games in hand.
Among the points of good news, Vancouver scored first – which they haven’t done all that much, and the goal came on the power play, which is happening more and more.
Early in the second, with Phoenix defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the box for holding, Vancouver’s Jason Garrison cracked in a one-timer slap shot to beat goalie Mike Smith on his blocker side, the pass coming over from Dan Hamhuis. The goal marked the seventh-consecutive game with a power play goal, a run that hasn’t happened for Vancouver in a long time – eight years, in fact, going back to November, 2005.
So this current stretch is precisely what the team needed to validate its confidence that the power play is not a pathetic mess.
The team ranked near the bottom of the league for most of this season – and remains in the bottom third – but was among the teams putting the most pucks at the net. The disconnect was jarring: Many shots, few goals.
The players and coaches believed goals would come. They have – and they are making the difference, such as securing victory in a 3-1 game against Nashville on Tuesday and getting the early lead against Phoenix, though it didn’t hold.
The last time the Canucks were at home, they lost six of seven. Since then, they have won four of five – and have another four at home, to continue to rebuild after early-season struggles. It is a work in progress.
The victory against Phoenix was doubly important, the Coyotes being an in-division and in-conference team the Canucks have to beat if they are to recoup ground lost. Beyond vaulting the Canucks past the Coyotes, Phoenix’s games in hand notwithstanding, the Friday-night win improved the Canucks’ losing records against their Pacific Division rivals and the West, figures which now stand at 4-4-3 against Pacific opponents, and 6-6-3 against the West.
Next up for Vancouver, another Western team ahead in the standings, the Colorado Avalanche, who arrive on Sunday. The Avs have had a lucky start to the year and are fading somewhat, getting blown out by Edmonton a couple days ago before recovering to win against Calgary Friday.
Much has been made about the competition in the West, and the Pacific especially. It is against teams like Phoenix, playing at home, the Canucks have to win. The same can be said for the Avalanche. On Friday the Canucks booked the W they needed, even if it wasn’t pretty.