Despite many new faces in the Vancouver Canucks lineup, some wily veterans stole the spotlight in a key win over the St. Louis Blues.
Alex Burrows’ early third-period goal gave Vancouver the lead, and the Canucks beat the Blues 2-0 on Thursday night in a showdown for first place in the NHL.
Chris Higgins added an empty-net goal in the final minute for the Canucks (41-16-8), who with 90 points have a three-point lead over St. Louis (40-18-7) and Detroit in the Western Conference.
”It felt a little bit like a playoff game on the ice,” Burrows said. ”Two good teams going at it, there’s not a lot of room. It’s good hockey. Sometimes, those shinny games where it’s more open and more goals, it might be more exciting for the fans. But for us, if we get the win either way, we’re happy.”
Vancouver’s overall lead in the NHL is two points over the New York Rangers, who have played three fewer games.
Roberto Luongo registered his third shutout of the season, making 29 saves for the Canucks, who ended St. Louis’ four-game winning streak, all on the road.
”These guys are right behind us, so it was a big game,” said Luongo, who praised his teammates for not allowing any dangerous scoring chances, even though Vancouver was outshot 29-24. ”We wanted to create a little separation there and we were able to do that. But, obviously, there’s lots of hockey to be played.”
Burrows opened the scoring 4:17 into the third when he backhanded Dan Hamhuis’ rebound off the end boards in off goalie Brian Elliott’s shoulder. The puck came to Hamhuis after Kevin Bieksa fanned on a slap shot.
”It’s a measuring stick for us,” Elliott said. ”We didn’t measure up.”
Forwards Zack Kassian and Sammy Pahlsson, and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani played their first game in Vancouver after being acquired from Buffalo on Monday. Kassian and Pahlsson had played for the Canucks on Tuesday at Phoenix while Gragnani was a healthy scratch.
Kassian and Gragnani quickly made an impression. But the rest of the Canucks didn’t.
The trio impressed Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, who attributed his club’s slow start to the effects of its recently concluded six-game trip.
”They brought exactly what those guys can bring,” he said. ”They brought a lot of energy and the opportunity was there to wear down their players, especially their defense. They finished their checks. So I really liked what those guys did.
”(Kassian) brought exactly what my scouts said he would. He’s a player that can skate, see the ice offensively, take pucks to the net, and he’s got a physical edge to his game. He’s a first-year player that has got a tremendous amount of upside, a real good skill set, and I’m very happy with what I’ve seen so far.”
The Blues outshot the Canucks 10-0 before Kassian registered the Canucks’ first shot at 7:52 of the first period: a slap shot from the wing on Elliott. The crowd let out a loud roar of approval after Kassian got the puck out of the Vancouver zone, kept it in moments later at the blue line, and then unleashed a slap shot.
Gragnani had a chance on the rebound, but was foiled by Elliott. The defenseman, playing his first NHL game since Nov. 12, struggled at times and took a cross-checking penalty.
St. Louis came close to scoring on the ensuing power play, but Luongo got an elbow on Vladimir Sobotka’s shot, and the puck landed on top of the net.
Kassian led all shooters with four shots.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said fatigue caught up to his club in the third period as it played the second of back-to-back road games.
”We made tired mistakes,” he said. ”They were on the mark, they checked us hard in the third period and we didn’t have the energy to keep going.”
NOTES: Hitchcock is on pace for the ninth 100-point season of his 15-year NHL head coaching career. He also surpassed 100 points four times during his junior coaching days with the Kamloops Blazers. … Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault pulled Luongo for a sixth attacker before a faceoff in the St. Louis end with under 2 seconds left in the second period. The Blues won the draw to erase any threat.