Many fans were anxious to see how the newest Vancouver Canucks would fare in their first home game Thursday night.
But in the end, some wily veterans stole the spotlight as the Canucks blanked the St. Louis Blues 2-0 in a showdown for first place overall in the NHL.
Alex Burrows' early third-period goal gave the Canucks a lead they would never relinquish, then Chris Higgins added an insurance goal into an empty net in the game's final minute as Roberto Luongo secured his third shutout of the season with a 29-save effort.
“It felt a little bit like a playoff game on the ice,” said Burrows. “Two good teams going at it, there's not a lot of room. It's good hockey. Sometimes, those shinny games where it's more open and more goals, it might be more exciting for the fans. But for us, if we get the win either way, we're happy.”
The Canucks (41-16-8) retained top spot, building a three-point cushion on the Blues (40-18-7) and the idle Detroit Red Wings. Vancouver ended St. Louis' win streak at four games — all on the road.
“These guys are right behind us, so it was a big game,” said Luongo, who praised his teammates for not allowing any dangerous scoring chances, even though Vancouver was outshot 29-24. “We wanted to create a little separation there and we were able to do that tonight. But, obviously, there's lots of hockey to be played.”
Burrows finally opened the scoring 4:17 into the third period as he backhanded a Dan Hamhuis rebound off the end boards into the net, nicking the shoulder of St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott. The puck came to Hamhuis after Kevin Bieksa fanned on a slapshot.
“It's a measuring stick for us,” said Elliott. “We didn't measure up tonight.”
Winger Zack Kassian, centre Sammy Pahlsson and defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani played their first game in Vancouver after being acquired from Buffalo at Monday's trade deadline in a surprise four-player deal that sent fan favourite Cody Hodgson the other way. Kassian and Pahlsson had played Tuesday in Phoenix while Gragnani was a healthy scratch.
Kassian and Gragnani quickly made an impression. But the rest of the Canucks did not.
The Blues outshot the Canucks 10-0 before Kassian registered the Canucks' first shot of the game at the 7:52 mark of the first period, a slapshot from the wing. The crowd let out a loud roar of approval after Kassian got the puck out of the Vancouver zone, kept it in moments later at the St. Louis blue-line, and then unleashed his slapper.
It was the first of four shots that he registered on the night, all in an opening period in which the Blues outshot the Canucks 13-8.
Kassian also registered four hits in 11:04 of ice time. Gragnani had just one shot, off Kassian's rebound on the aforementioned slapshot. The defenceman, playing his first NHL game since Nov. 12 when he was still with the Sabres, took Hodgson's spot on the point on the second power-play unit. He struggled early and took a cross-checking penalty, but was solid the rest of the way while showing offensive creativity on the blue-line.
Pahlsson was quietly effective in about 13 minutes of ice time on a hard-working fourth line with Kassian and Max Lapierre that was strong on the forecheck throughout the game.
The trio impressed Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, who attributed his club's slow start to the effects of its recently concluded six-game road trip.
“They brought exactly what those guys can bring,” said Vigneault. “They brought a lot of energy and the opportunity was there to wear down their players, especially their defence. They finished their checks. So I really liked what those guys did tonight.
“(Kassian) brought exactly what my scouts said he would. He's a player that can skate, see the ice offensively, take pucks to the net, and he's got a physical edge to his game. He's a first-year player that has got a tremendous amount of upside, a real good skill set, and I'm very happy with what I've seen so far.”
Vigneault wasn't just impressed with Kassian.
“(Pahlsson) did exactly what I thought he would do,” said the Canucks head coach. “In Gragnani's case, I think you can see the upside as far as the skating and the hands, the offensive potential there.”
Play was more even in the second period. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock called a timeout midway through the period after the Canucks pressed, and his team settled down. But neither team could turn the red light on behind steady goaltenders Elliott and Luongo.
Hitchcock said fatigue caught up to his club in the third period as it was playing the second of back-to-back road games.
“We made tired mistakes,” said Hitchcock. “They were on the mark, they checked us hard in the third period and we didn't have the energy to keep going.”
Notes: Hitchcock is on pace for the ninth 100-point season of his 15-year NHL head coaching career. He also surpassed 100 points four times during his junior coaching days with the Kamloops Blazers. ... Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault pulled Luongo for a sixth attacker before a face-off in the St. Louis end with under two seconds left in the second period. However, the Blues won the draw to erase any threat.
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