The slumping Canucks took on the Phoenix Coyotes earlier tonight, with a Phoenix team that is desperately in need of points to recoup the final playoff berths in the Western Conference, with the season becoming closer to ending. Roberto Luongo started for Vancouver, while Mike Smith received the get-go to start against the Canucks.
Overall, it was a hard-fought game with many offensive opportunities on both ends of the rink, a considerably surprising result, especially when taking into account that most meetings between these two teams have been tallied with two or less goals in total (not counting shootout wins). For the Canucks, it was an opportunity to get back to a fairly good season statistically, and the recent slump that they have been in made this game even more important to prove that they can indeed sustain their pressure deep into the playoffs. A couple of surprising line changes by Alain Vigneault, including the completely unexpected move of Mason Raymond to the first line with the Sedin twins, further confirmed that the Canucks really needed a method – any method – to get out of this slump that they are experiencing.
In the first period, there was a bevy of scoring opportunities, and Ryan Kesler quickly scored a goal off a beautiful feed from Henrik Sedin, just two minutes into the first period. Not only did this add a point to the struggling Henrik, it also enabled him to surpass Trevor Linden for most career points as a Canuck, with 733. Just seven minutes later, Alexandre Burrows capitalized on a powerplay off a penalty by Michal Roszival for hooking. The powerplay has been an area of concern for Vancouver for quite some time, and this quick conversion truly did motivate the team to play even better, with the ‘can-do’ type of thinking. Despite this offensive effort, Rusty Klesla of the Coyotes scored two minutes after Burrows, directly off a rebound on Roberto Luongo, who most definitely would have wanted that goal back. Even with point-getters like Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal, the Coyotes were able to maintain a lot of composure, a key component that they would definitely want to keep going deeper into the season. Shane Doan scored subsequently after Roszival, just four minutes after the previous goal. An offensive pinch by Dan Hamhuis with no one covering him in the defensive zone, and a lack of unified support by the defense enabled Doan to simply skate around virtually every Canuck on the ice, and place the puck right into the back of the net. The game at this point was quite a departure from earlier matchups, where tight checking and closing off the boards was not a very rampant development, but rather a game where odd-man rushes and offensive bouts frequently occurred on both ends of the rink. However, giving up a two goal lead most certainly did not hold well for the Canucks, who started the first period with a very good offensive output.
During the second period, the fourth line sustained pressure for long enough to create very good scoring opportunities, with Maxim Lapierre narrowly missing an almost empty net (though from a sharp angle). After a very sloppy line change by the Canucks, which resulted in a too many men call being assessed, the Coyotes went 1/1 on their powerplay after Ekman-Larsson scored with a blast from the point, beating a screened Luongo. Three unanswered goals from the Coyotes at this point did not help the Canucks’ morale, but they continued fighting. David Booth scored five minutes after Ekman-Larsson off a wonderful pass by Chris Higgins, which was also on the powerplay, not only getting the powerplay to a respectable 2/3 (especially when compared to earlier Canucks games during the slump) in the game, but more importantly, tying the game at three. And with the Canucks already at 29 shots with four minutes remaining in the second, it was obvious that the third period would invite some very good hockey. The Canucks were playing like the team they were when they played against the Winnipeg Jets, with much crisp passing on all four offensive lines, and a wholly more consistent powerplay. The Coyotes had better plans in mind, and Gilbert Brule scored off of a rather strange bounce that deflected off of his glove after it was banked to the side of the net by Taylor Pyatt. The odd-man rush with Bieksa aiming for a rebound on the other end before the goal created mass chaos in the Canucks’ defensive zone, and sure enough, a goal resulted. The goal was ultimately reviewed to ensure that it was not thrown in, but it stood after a call to the war room in Toronto. A not-so-fortunate end to the second with the Coyotes up 4-3 was unwelcome news for the Canucks, who are a measly 4-14(now 15)-6 this season when trailing after two.
In the third period, Adrian Aucoin seemed to have left the Coyotes bench with an undisclosed injury, shortening the amount of defenseman to five. Kevin Bieksa had another opportunity on an offensive rush, but was quickly stymied, and slashed a Coyotes’ defenseman’s stick, which was called as a slash by both referees. Phoenix once again pounced on the powerplay, with a somewhat lucky bounce to the goal scorer Antoine Vermette, but again Roberto Luongo looked downright average with terrible rebound control off a shot that he normally would have definitely saved. However, at the end of the day, the Canucks were unable to kill both penalties they took, which meant Phoenix’s powerplay was a stellar 100% in the game. Kevin Bieksa, who was now a -3, was having an even worse game after taking the penalty, as the Coyotes cashed in only nine seconds into the powerplay. Despite the two goal gap, the Canucks continued to press offensively, and ultimately this paid off with Dan Hamhuis scoring twelve minutes into the third period off a rebound created by the struggling Sedin twins. However, this ended up not being enough to win the game, even with the Canucks outshooting the Coyotes 43-33 overall by the end of the game.
The Canucks certainly stepped up their game against the Coyotes, but it’s still the little things that are creating issues. Even with the offensive lines looking good, particularly the revamped third line, a lack of a good penalty kill, poor defensive coverage (which resulted in many odd man rushes against) and Luongo having particularly average-looking games, there are certainly still issues with the team in its current form. In the home stand so far, the Canucks have gone 2-4-0, certainly not ideal by any means. The game was definitely an improvement over the 4-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday, but these issues will need to be quickly addressed, or else the Canucks could easily fall in the Western Conference standings. They end their current home stand on March 17th against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game that can hopefully be won by using the same effort used in the game against Phoenix, but also with the current issues sorted out. You can catch it on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada at 7:00PM Pacific, or on the Team 1040 AM.