The Detroit Red Wings are amazing at home, winning almost every single game this season at Joe Louis Arena.
On the road, the Western Conference’s best team is a completely different story, coming into Vancouver on Thursday night at just .500, 14-14.
The Canucks were a gracious host, however. Vancouver did all it could to help Detroit steal a W on the road. In the first two periods, the Canucks barely managed any shots on Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard, never mind goals.
But in the third, Detroit was the one that couldn’t get pucks on Roberto Luongo, blowing a 3-2 lead to give the Canucks one last go at it in overtime.
The five-minute frame didn’t provide a conclusion so the tilt between two of the NHL’s best teams had to be settled by shootout. Detroit prevailed, winning 4-3, improving its record in shootouts this season to 6-0 while Vancouver fell to 3-5.
The W vaults Detroit to 71 points for the season, the most in the NHL. For Vancouver, the single point edges it ahead of Boston, to stand third in the NHL.
“We got taken to school,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault after the game.
“Obviously, we can play a lot better.”
The Vancouver-Detroit pairing could well be a preview of May, should the two Western Conference powers face each other in the playoffs.
It is still a ways away but Mike Babcock, Detroit coach, feels confident in his squad.
“We have a lot of gas,” Babcock said after Detroit’s morning skate on Thursday. “I’m not concerned.”
Howard feels much the same. The netminder has an NHL-leading 32 wins and is chipper.
“I feel good,” Howard said after the morning skate. “I don’t feel tired at all.”
On Thursday night, while the Canucks fought their way into overtime, it often did not look good at all for Vancouver. The first line – the Sedin twins – were uninspiring at best.
In the first period, more than 10 minutes had ticked by as Detroit racked up 11 shots to Vancouver’s one.
In the second, Detroit had another 11 shots – and its second goal – when Vancouver finally got its first puck on Howard with about eight minutes left in the period, drawing a small and frustrated cheer from the crowd.
The poor showing had come after the usual declarations after a morning skate on Thursday about the importance of getting pucks on Howard, and causing trouble for him with traffic in front. As has been the case regularly in the past month, Vancouver could not deliver its game plan.
“Not good,” was the conclusion of Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin after the second period when asked about the team’s work.
The score would have been much more lopsided if it was not for the good work of Luongo. The goaltender is the main reason the Canucks were 7-2-2 in January despite the team’s erratic play and on Tuesday night Luongo kept his team in the game from the start.
Four minutes in, former Canuck Todd Bertuzzi nearly scored himself a birthday goal – he turned 37 on Thursday – as he undressed Mason Raymond in the Canucks end to storm in alone on Luongo. The goaltender delivered a big glove save.
It was only in the third when Vancouver came alive. And, strangely, like the Canucks in the first and second, Detroit couldn’t get a shot on Luongo until more than half the third had passed.
Whoever the Canucks face in the playoffs, it will be a challenge, said defenceman Dan Hamhuis (who was outclassed by Detroit’s Dan Cleary in the first when Cleary scored the night’s opener).
“When look how tight the standings are, the top eight are going to be really good, whoever you’re matched up against,” said Hamhuis. “Any round of the playoffs, it’s going to be a really difficult series. Trying to get home-ice advantage would be huge.”