The Anaheim Ducks strolled into Vancouver with the second-worst record in the NHL and the fewest road wins in the league – but arrived somewhat buoyed, on a little roll of four wins in five games.
Expected to be a playoff team, the 2007 Stanley Cup champs are arguably the biggest disappointment of the 2011-12 NHL season, as stars such as 2010 Olympian Ryan Getzlaf struggle and the team's scoring leader is a 41-year-old – the ageless Teemu Selanne.
But on Sunday night the Ducks piled on the at-times listless Canucks, freshly returned home from a successful trip and a stretch of 21 games in 43 days.
The Ducks scored first – snapping the Canucks' 10-game score-first run – and had badly outshot Vancouver 18-5 midway through the game, leading 2-1.
The Canucks nearly tied the score shortly thereafter, during a burst when an Alex Burrows redirection of a Henrik Sedin shot glanced off the right post, but the Ducks blasted right back. On a two-on-one, winger Jason Blake charged up the left side of the ice and scored unassisted, wristing a shot past Roberto Luongo's far side, the goaltender's glove unable to snag the shot.
Blake – injured for much of this season – scored again in the third. His three points on the night doubled his season total to six, and the Ducks won 4-2.
"We've got to bring it every night," said Blake after the game. "We know the position we're in. Every game for us is a playoff game."
Put the blame, perhaps, on Gene Simmons. The Kiss rocker was in attendance Sunday with wife Shannon Tweed. The last Vancouver game the couple saw was New Year's Eve in Los Angeles, when the Kings toasted the Canucks 4-1.
"Give them [Anaheim]credit – they're a lot better team than they are in the standings – but we didn't execute," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa after the game, one that lacked emotion on both sides of the puck.
"Not every game's going to be a Boston-Vancouver game. There's no reason for the lack of execution."
More shots, less fancy, is Bieksa's prescription.
"We're trying to make the extra pass. To create scoring chances, sometimes the best thing to do is just put pucks on the net, go to the net and get a little greasy. We're really good when we're doing that and we didn't do it tonight."
The loss means the Canucks slip from their perch atop the Western Conference, passed by rival Chicago Blackhawks, who notched a 4-3 win against San Jose on Sunday. The Canucks play host to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night.
Vancouver only occasionally displayed its top form. There was a busy flurry as the seconds ticked down in the second, when Burrows had a mini-breakaway but couldn't push a backhander past Jonas Hiller, the Anaheim goalie. The push did not continue in any sustained fashion in the third.
Hiller's weak play is a big reason why Anaheim, despite a roster with Getzlaf and Selanne, along with Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, is mired in the NHL basement. Going into Sunday night's game, Hiller's save percentage of 0.902 was 45th in the league among goalies with at least 10 games played. But Hiller was, like his team, on a roll, having shut out Edmonton 5-0 last Friday and given up only one in a 1-0 overtime loss to Calgary on Thursday.
Anaheim, under coach Bruce Boudreau (ousted from Washington earlier in the season), stuck to its game plan to get up on Vancouver early. The Ducks have won only once this season when they've been scored on first. Boudreau recalled the teams' last meeting, Dec. 29 in Anaheim, when the Canucks trounced the Ducks, "toyed with us," in the words of the coach before the game.
The Ducks got the first tally Sunday, striking at a Vancouver weakness: The Canucks have won just 28.6 per cent of their games this season when scored on first – 21st in the league. Compare that with Boston: The Bruins are best in the NHL when scored on first, winning 54.5 per cent of such games.
THE RETURN OF DAVID BOOTH
Vancouver's American Express line – David Booth, Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins – was reunited Sunday when Booth returned from a knee injury that kept him out of games since early December. While imperfect – a few bobbles of the puck here and there – Booth was strong, skating swiftly to create chances. He had two good ones on a power play early in the second, Hiller fending off the first shot after a rushing Booth made a nice move to get a good look, and the second, a slapper, missing wide right. On Dec. 6 Booth strained a ligament in his right knee in a knee-on-knee collision that saw the aggressor, Kevin Porter of Colorado, suspended four games. Booth was cautious to return, softly criticized by the local press for not joining the lineup sooner even though he was cleared to play by team medical staff a week ago. "My leg is finally getting back to where it needs to be," Booth said before the game.