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Calgary Flames defenseman Cory Sarich fights for control of the puck with Vancouver Canucks right wing Zack Kassian (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)
Calgary Flames defenseman Cory Sarich fights for control of the puck with Vancouver Canucks right wing Zack Kassian (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)

Zack Kassian more than just a physical presence in Canucks win over Flames Add to ...

On the night before his 22nd birthday, in his 46th game in the National Hockey League, Zack Kassian was a force from beginning to end and along the way achieved something tough to pull off in Vancouver – distract at least some attention from the question of the team’s goaltending.

Kassian, in 43 games in his rookie year, had four goals. In three games this year, he has two.

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Vancouver pulled out its first win of the year in its third game at home, carried in large part by Kassian and the impressive goaltending of Cory Schneider, who achieved the redemption he sought after a disastrous start to the season last Saturday against Anaheim. Kassian opened the scoring and then scored what was the winner in the shootout.

There are still big questions for the 1-1-1 Canucks as they tramp down to California to play three games in four nights, San Jose, Anaheim and then a showdown with the Los Angeles Kings, who ejected Vancouver from the playoffs last spring. An issue is Vancouver’s ability to deliver a 60-minute performance, having blown three leads in three games, and on Wednesday against Calgary fading in the third period, outshot 14-7. It was enough for coach Alain Vigneault to mildly call out the Sedins, a rare thing, saying after the game that the 32-year-olds are “trying to find their rhythm.”

Kassian, however, is quickly emerging to be the player general manager Mike Gillis has advertised since Gillis shipped budding young star Cody Hodgson to Buffalo last year for the 6-foot-3, 214-pound forward. On an evening Kassian had been elevated to the first line with the Sedin twins, the highlights were his impressive multiple-shot effort to notch the first goal of the night and his move in the shootout to beat Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff for the winning goal.

But the performance was much more, underscored by several episodes in the first period. Early in the game, Kassian battled veteran defenceman Jay Bouwmeester behind the Flames net and came away with the puck, whipping it back out to Danile Sedin at the blue line, who pushed it over to defenceman Kevin Bieksa, whose slap shot was a good scoring opportunity for the Canucks. A couple minutes later, Kassian sent a pinpoint backhand pass – Sedin-like – across the offensive zone from the right faceoff circle over to Bieksa, who popped it back to D-man Dan Hamhuis, who rifled in a shot for another reasonable scoring opportunity.

At night’s end, Kassian had 19:14 of ice time, the most of any Vancouver forward except for the Sedins, scored a goal, had three shots on net, and four hits – the physical presence is something the Canucks really need. The goal Wednesday night adds to a cracker of a goal against Edmonton Sunday. This is all from a player who, last spring in the playoffs against the Kings, saw a maximum ice time of six minutes in Game 2 and was not even dressed for the decisive Game 5.

Off-season fitness work has paid off, including sticking around town to train with the Sedins, well-known fitness freaks. Along with the physical work, there was the establishment of a bond.

“You see their workout ethic and you talk to them and go for lunch with them and whatnot and just get comfortable,” said Kassian in the locker room after the Wednesday night win.

It is probably a safe bet Kassian remains on the first line with the Sedins, a position long held by Alex Burrows, who has been moved from the first-line wing to centre a second line with Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins on the wings. It’s a lot of juggling by Vigneault, with the second-line in tatters due to injury, centre Ryan Kesler still out, as is David Booth. Kesler – Gillis has said – could be skating with his teammates early next week, but the informed smart money would bet that a real return to game action will be later than sooner. And Booth’s strained groin leaves him out until at least mid-February, so composing the lineup is somewhat filling gaps – and Kassian shows he fits well on the first line, even if the soft-spoken young man is modest about shining with the Sedins: “Anyone on the team basically can go in there and do the job.”

The highlight of the night was indeed his goal to open the scoring in the second period – a play on which he showed patience, tenacity, and skill – and was buoyed by some luck. Kassian, at the side of the net, first showed patience beside Kiprusoff before darting behind the net, one step ahead of the veteran goalie, and nearly scored on a backhand wraparound, jamming the puck on the precipice of the post. Kassian got the puck back and shot, which was blocked, and got it back again and then he blew a wrist shot from the slot by Kiprusoff, the goal unassisted, his linemates – the Sedins – spectators for the impressive showing.

“The puck kept coming back to me,” said Kassian.

The goal also relieved him of having to rue the near goal on the wraparound.

“If the one a little later didn’t go in, yeah, I’d probably be kicking myself in the head, yeah.”

As for the evening, Kassian resisted any declarations. It may well be a demarcation point in his young career.

“It felt good. It’s all you can really say. It’s only the third game in the season. Obviously there’s a lot of players in this league that have great starts and then fall off. To me it’s about consistency. That’s been the big thing for me.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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