It wasn’t exactly a must-win for the Vancouver Canucks.
The season’s not even halfway done, this one they call a sprint, even if it’s more like a half-marathon. Still, though, the last time the Los Angeles Kings were in town, last spring, the visitors took all three games in the first round of the playoffs on Vancouver’s home ice, including the decisive Game 5, a humbling and abrupt end for the Canucks and their Stanley Cup aspirations.
In more recent history, the Canucks had lost their three previous games at home, part of the reason they’ve seen their 2013 record fall to 10-5-4 – that’s just 10 wins in 19 outings, victorious in barely half their games. One of the losses came last month, against the Kings in L.A., blowing a two-goal lead and losing in a shootout.
So the milieu called for Vancouver to conjure something more than they have in most of their outings this season, especially as the red-hot Kings – winners of seven of their past eight (and giving up just 11 goals in that span) – showed up for a Hockey Night in Canada tilt.
Vancouver delivered. The team twice lost leads, watching 1-0 turn to 1-1, and 2-1 slip to 2-2, but at the end, the Canucks secured the W, 5-2 over the defending Cup champions, a victory that snapped the Kings’s five-game winning streak. It was a snipe-fest for Vancouver, even if at times struggled to get pucks on the net, especially in the second period.
With five minutes left in the middle frame, Daniel Sedin got the fourth shot of the period on L.A.’s Jonathan Quick – a low slapper from the faceoff circle on a two-on-one, the pass coming cross-ice from his brother Henrik, and Daniel’s shot beat the Kings’ netminder on the blocker side, the puck tucking inside the post.
"This is the way we need to play," said Henrik after the game of the Canucks's wire-to-wire effort. He did concede that Vancouver caught Quick on a bad night, saying the L.A. goaltender appeared "a little bit off" -- "He seemed to be struggling a little bit in the net."
The Canucks ended the period with three goals on just nine shots. The first coming on a beauty snipe by Mason Raymond, a wrist shot to the top right corner that beat Quick’s glove side. The play emerged from two backhand passes, David Booth (for his first point of the year) to Jannik Hansen, and Hansen sliding it to the streaking Raymond.
"You try to shoot those ones in stride if you can," said Raymond of his goal, his sixth of the year, noting that he was aiming top right the whole way.
Hansen concluded the sniping, late in the period with the team’s playing four-on-four, Hansen outduelling L.A’s Rob Scuderi and snapping a wrister that eluded Quick’s glove yet again.
It was the fifth time in 20 games this season that the Canucks have managed at least four goals and it elevated their record to 11-5-4, a confidence boost when they needed it. Not badly, but they did.
Their three-win lead as of last Monday in the feeble Northwest Division had shrunk to one. And as Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Friday of the Kings: “They’re playing big, they’re playing heavy. They’ve found their gear, they’ve found their game, as far as grinding teams down, and using that size. So, if ever we need to be good, tomorrow it’s the night.”
It was the night. Vigneault had said the Canucks would need their speed and skill to be at full throttle to outpace and outwit the visitors and, indeed, it was the factor that carried Vancouver. Goaltender Cory Schneider was the added boost for the team, playing solid in net, lifting his record on the year to 6-4-1.
The win, even if it wasn’t a must, came at an opportune moment. March will be a tough month for the Canucks, as it will for all National Hockey League teams, a condensed schedule in a shortened season. The Kings game marked the first of 16 matches in just 29 days for Vancouver in March. There will hardly be time be time to breath. The next game comes immediately, Sunday night, on the road in Calgary.
L.A. deals with much the same, 17 games in 30 days – though their calendar includes two five-game home stands, including one that starts Monday against Nashville. The Kings, with their winning streak ended, falls to 10-7-2, and now sits ninth in the Western Conference.
The West is incredibly tight right now. Eight teams, from fourth to 11th, are within two points of each other, 24 points at the top, 22 at the bottom.
It was a relatively scrappy game especially in the first period, with numerous plays ending with tussles in front of either goaltender, a group of Kings and Canucks shoving with words exchanged. The game teetered on the edge of violence, too, even notwithstanding the mid-first period scrap between Canucks newly hired pugilist Tom Sestito and Kings scrapper Jordan Nolan. Shortly after that fight, Kevin Bieksa got tagged for an interference call, something of an odd ruling, in terms of the call, but definitely a penalty, as the defenceman shoved Anze Kopitar into the boards, leaving the Kings centre a little dazed as he got to his feet.
There was also lots of quality hockey. Both the Kings and the Canucks are among the best puck-possession teams in the NHL – the Kings No. 1 and the Canucks No. 5, based on figures from behindthenet.ca – and it evident throughout the game, with both teams being able to show dominance at times during the game.
The Canucks’s first goal was an example, as where their others. The first was the result of lasting Vancouver pressure in the L.A. zone, and clinched even as the Kings had all of their skaters collapsed down low around the net. It was a line mismatch, with the Kings’s fourth line on against the Sedins. As the Canucks held the pressure on, Henrik got the puck to Alex Burrows beside the net, and Burrows popped a pretty backhand out and across the crease to a pinching Dan Hamhuis, who hammered in the puck, his second of the year and first since opening night, Quick basically having no chance to make the save.