In Vancouver, who needs Swedes? The Canucks have Americans.
After going down 1-0 to the Calgary Flames, a team fighting for its season, Vancouver demolished their visiting rivals, as the American Express line of Chris Higgins, David Booth and Ryan Kesler put three consecutive pucks in the net to roll to a 5-1 win.
Booth completed Vancouver's second line when he arrived in Vancouver in October but the scoring assault was slow to emerge. For several weeks Booth often looked confused as he tried to fit in, Kesler was slower than usual as he recovered from hip surgery in the summer and Higgins didn't have the full-flight partners he has now.
The win lifts Vancouver to 15-10-1, after a 7-7-1 start, and is solidly in the Western Conference playoff picture. Calgary solidified its position in last place in the northwest division and the team's playoff hopes are evaporating.
Vancouver's victory was backstopped by the official return of Roberto Luongo, who hadn't started since he beat the New York Islanders on Nov. 13. Luongo faced a so-so Calgary and didn't have much trouble stopping 21 of 22 shots. The tricky one that got by him was from Alex Tanguay, who banked a puck off the back of Luongo's legs from behind the goal line in the first.
For Luongo, the win should at least somewhat quiet the loud questions about goaltending in Vancouver, where the starter himself floated the weird suggestion that he and backup Cory Schneider were "both No. 1s." Luongo historically beats up on Calgary, winning about two-thirds of all encounters, and before the match on Sunday was all standard-issue "just play my game" talk. He gave no suggestion he'd been rattled in the past several weeks, saying all the chatter around Schneider's hot hand and his benching was "nothing to be upset about."
Flames fans are surely going to be somewhat upset, as they watch their team fade. After a great game against the young Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night – responding 5-3 after going down 2-0 after three minutes – the Flames could not deliver back-to-back nights on the road.
Odds are the next presser with Flames general manager Jay Feaster will be just as fun as the last one on Friday in Calgary. Feaster shot down all sorts of rumours (Jarome Iginla absolutely is not going anywhere) and declared the team was entering a "critical part" of the season's scheduled.
"We can't fool ourselves," Feaster told reporters. "We need to pick up points."
Higgins is one of various Vancouver Canucks who has found his form in recent games, in part because his linemates are now clicking. Higgins played much of last spring's playoff with a broken foot and has notched points in each of the past four games, including three on Sunday night. Linemate Booth also had three points.
Higgins's goal gave the Canucks the lead near the end of the second and the night's showing gave him eight goals and nine assists – 17 points – for the season. The 2002 first-round draft choice, 14th overall to Montreal, is on pace to book 56 points, which would be his best-ever season, ahead of 27 goals and 52 points in 2007-08 with the Canadiens. His stock thereafter sank in Montreal, as his scoring vanished, and he bounced around, first to the New York Rangers, briefly to Calgary (12 games to end 2009-10, two goals, one assist) and then Florida Panthers (he came during last season, and Booth joined him from Florida in October).
Although the Flames opened the scoring on Sunday, numerous statistics suggested Calgary fans' hope for a weekend to remember was perhaps a little too hopeful. The Flames's O can barely be described as okay. The team entered the game with an average of 2.36 goals a game, No 23 in the league, and 27.9 shots a game, 24th, which was a factor in the second frame on Sunday when the Flames blew the 1-0 lead and went down 2-1, notching all of four shots on Luongo. The fact the Flames blew a lead isn't shocking either, as Calgary was No. 20 in the NHL with a lead after one, winning 71.4 per cent before last night's loss.
In the circle
Calgary outdid itself, delivering an absolutely terrible showing at puck drops Sunday night. The team was already the worst in the NHL, winning just 44.8 per cent of draws this season. Vancouver, which prides itself at winning faceoffs, stood at No. 5, with 52.2 per cent. Through the first two periods last night, Calgary won an abysmal 10 of 39 draws, barely 25 per cent.