By refusing to give the Columbus Blue Jackets any breathing room on the ice, the Vancouver Canucks gave themselves a little more in the standings.
Vancouver had one of its best defensive games of the season on Sunday, allowing just 20 shots – including nine through the first two periods – en route to a key 3-1 NHL victory at General Motors Place.
Sami Salo, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows scored and Roberto Luongo made 19 saves for Vancouver (32-22-8), which moved four points ahead of Columbus for fifth place in the ultra-tight Western Conference. Vancouver, which has won five straight home games, also moved five points ahead of eighth-place Anaheim, and has two games in hand on the Ducks.
“We knew they were either going to be tied with us in the standings or we were going to be four points up,” Kesler said of Columbus. “Four points is big nowadays. We want to separate ourselves from the (logjam) in the bottom of the playoff spots there.”
Captain Rick Nash scored for Columbus (31-26-6), which had defeated Vancouver in the teams’ first three meetings of the season, including a wild 6-5 shootout win at GM Place on Jan. 18.
Unlike that last meeting, the Canucks were composed throughout Sunday’s contest and had Columbus hemmed in its own zone for much of the night.
“That was one of our better games, not just lately but I think since the beginning of the year,” said Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault. “Our turnovers were very limited. We got out of our zone real quickly against a team that forechecks real hard, and were able to get in their zone. When you don’t spend a lot of time in your end then you’re not giving the other team a lot of opportunities.”
The Blue Jackets took penalties as a result of Vancouver’s constant pressure, and it cost them on the Canucks’ first two goals.
A hooking penalty to Fedor Tyutin and high-sticking infraction to Nash left the Blue Jackets two men short, and the Canucks took advantage.
Salo opened scoring 68 seconds after Tyutin’s penalty, wiring a slapshot from the point past prone rookie goaltender Steve Mason with 4.2 seconds remaining in the first period.
Kesler made it 2-0 on the same power play, although Nash had stepped out of the penalty box a second before the puck went in. The gritty Kesler parked himself in front of the net and deflected Mats Sundin’s one-timer between Mason’s legs for his 19th goal of the year.
The theme for Vancouver against Mason, who leads the league with eight shutouts, was simple: get plenty of pucks – and bodies – to the net.
“We knew he’s been playing well this year, so we wanted to throw any chance on net and make it hard for him,” said Kesler. “I don’t think (Mason) seen the first one. Danny (Sedin) had a pretty good screen in front of him. I don’t think any goalie in the league is going to stop that. And mine was just a tip in front where he couldn’t react to it.”
Things were rolling along fine for Vancouver after 40 minutes. They outshot the Blue Jackets 22-9. They led 2-0. And they were clearly the better team.
But Columbus rebounded with a strong third period, outshooting Vancouver 11-8, and was close to sending the game to overtime.
Nash made it 2-1 6:18 into the final frame, collecting the rebound off his own wraparound and firing it past a prone Luongo.
The Blue Jackets kept coming, swarming the Canucks on a mid-period power play, but Luongo held strong. The all-star netminder robbed Kris Russell with a left-pad save, and closed the door on Kristian Huselius from the side of the net.
“They played a good game,” said Nash, who is hoping his team can hold on and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
“Usually, we’re not even in the race right now,” Nash said of the playoff push. “We’ve had a great season so far. But it’s not worth coming this far and giving in – we’ve gotta keep going.”
Burrows put the game away at 11:51, skating in on a 3-on-1 and ripping a slapshot over Mason’s glove. It was the diminutive winger’s seventh point in his last seven games while skating on a line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“It’s a lot of fun coming to the rink every day and knowing you can be a big part of it, and knowing that you can be a championship-calibre team,” said Burrows. “If we play hard and stay injury-free I like our chances.”
Mason finished with 27 saves, his best on a Pavol Demitra breakaway with the game scoreless in the first period.
Notes: Blue Jackets centre Mike Peca left the game with an undisclosed injury with six minutes remaining in the first period. He did not return. … Sundin’s two assists gave him 1,335 points in his career, tying him for 27th on the all-time list with Mike Gartner. … Mattias Ohlund’s assist on Kesler’s goal gave him 320 career points, one shy of Jyrki Lumme and Dennis Kearns for first place on the all-time Canucks defenceman scoring list. … Columbus ended its three-game western road swing with a 1-2 record. … Vancouver had its 246th consecutive sellout. … Vancouver defenceman Shane O’Brien edged Columbus winger Derek Dorsett in a first-period scrap.