VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Vancouver Canucks face another early-season character test on Tuesday night — against familiar foes.
The struggling Canucks (6-9-1) will host the red-hot New York Rangers (12-4-0) on Tuesday night at Rogers Arena. The contest offers the Canucks a chance to build momentum following their dramatic 5-4 comeback overtime victory against the Dallas Stars on Sunday.
Rookie defenseman Troy Stecher suggested the Canucks, who have only two wins in the past 12 games, do have the character that they need to climb up the standings. He was inspired by veterans' actions Sunday as Vancouver overcame deficits of 2-1 after the first period, 3-1 after the second and 4-3 in the third.
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“We came in here (in the dressing room) after the first period and some things were said from some of the leadership guys, and that's huge for myself and for the rest of the guys in the room, with the young guys that we've got — that it's unacceptable to keep losing,” said Stecher, a 22-year-old Richmond, B.C., native who scored the goal that forced overtime Sunday.
Tuesday's affair also gives the Canucks an opportunity to show that their convincing 5-3 victory over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden a week ago was no fluke. The win in New York was the lone bright spot as the Canucks went 1-5 on their recent road trip.
The Rangers' entourage includes coach Alain Vigneault, who become Vancouver's all-time winningest coach before he was unceremoniously fired after the 2013-14 season and promptly hired by New York.
The Rangers also feature Michael Grabner, a former Canucks first-round draft pick (2006, 14th overall) who never stuck before being traded to Florida prior to the 2010-11 season. He never played a regular-season for the Panthers and bounced to the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs before winding back in the Big Apple with the Blueshirts.
Grabner, a 29-year-old Villach, Austria, native, leads the Rangers in scoring with 10 goals — one more than he had with Toronto last season — and three assists following his reunion with Vigneault. He maintained his hot scoring Sunday night by scoring two goals in a 3-1 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton.
“When I signed here, I knew how they were playing would benefit my style — a fast-paced game,” Grabner, who joined the Rangers as free agent on a two-year, $3.3 million contract from the Maple Leafs in the offseason, recently told The Vancouver Province. “It's been perfect from training camp to right now and it helped knowing Vigneault and (Rangers assistant Scott Arniel) from my days with the Moose.”
Grabner was referring to Vancouver's former Manitoba Moose farm club in the American Hockey League.
Arniel formerly served as a Canucks assistant under Vigneault as well as head coach of the Moose. Ironically, their rare trip back to Vancouver could be a factor as Canucks ownership and management evaluate current coach Willie Desjardins, who earned a reprieve with the win over Dallas.
Vigneault definitely knows a few things about the Canucks. Vancouver's core players expanded their skills significantly under his watch. He guided them within one victory of the Stanley Cup in 2010-11. So the Canucks will likely try to mix a few things up. One of the change-ups will likely involve more duty for Brandon Sutter on the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin — or at least the power play with them.
Sutter was moved to the top line in the third period Sunday and scored a power-play goal — Vancouver's first man-advantage marker in 11 games — and assisted on Markus Granlund's overtime winner after winning a face-off.
“Sometimes when it's not working and we're not getting anything going, it's good to try and shuffle it up a bit,” said Sutter. “We did it and a couple lines got a few things going, and we went from there. It's just one of those things where you have to change things up.”
Coach Desjardins may also try to change things up by inserting second-year winger Jake Virtanen back into the lineup after he was recalled Sunday from Utica of the AHL, where he completed a two-game conditioning stint. Virtanen, 20, is one of Vancouver's few naturally gifted scorers — when he is on his game. But he has not been lately.
Meanwhile, Vigneault is expected to adjust his lineup by inserting rookie winger Cristoval (Boo) Nieves, who was called up from Hartford of the AHL on Monday after injured forwards Chris Kreider (upper body) and Pavel Buchnevich (back spasms) could not play Sunday. If he gets the nod, Nieves, a 22-year-old Baldwinsville, N.Y., native who had one goal and five assists with Hartford this season, will make his NHL debut.
Nieves will give the Rangers a full complement of forwards after Vigneault was short one Sunday and dressed an unused extra defenseman, Adam Clendening, who is also a former Canuck. Chances are that Clendening would have been used as a forward — if Vigneault felt that he needed him up front.
But the Rangers had little difficulty improving to 4-1 in their last five road games — a stat that provides another reason why Tuesday's contest is a character test for the Canucks.