GLENDALE, Ariz. – There’s no better way to prepare for the biggest game of a young season than to play your best game the night before.
If Vancouver was looking forward to a Western Conference Finals rematch in San Jose Saturday, the Canucks certainly didn’t let it affect their focus on Friday. They followed a dominant but scoreless first period with goals by Sami Salo, Ryan Kessler and David Booth during a 2:12 span of the second, stringing together their first three-game winning streak of the season with a 5-0 whitewash of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Backup goalie Cory Schneider – who has won all three games in place of starter Roberto Luongo – recorded his second straight shutout, needing only 21 saves this time. The Canucks come into their showdown with the Sharks having won six times in the last eight and sitting three games over .500 (12-9-1) for the first time this season.
"We knew we had a big three-game road trip and it seems like our game is getting better and better with each one," Vancouver winger Chris Higgins said. "Hopefully we can continue this into an extremely tough game tomorrow night and we can remember how simple we played and how effective it was.
"It’s a tough building to play in and a fast, skilled team, but if we play with the compete level we had tonight, we’ll give them hell."
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said he knows who he’ll start in goal against the Sharks, saying: "I’ll tell my goaltender tonight on the plane. I’m going to tell him before I tell you."
Maxim Lapierre and Alexandre Burrows added goals 56 seconds apart in the third for Vancouver, who has outscored the last three opponents 10-1 and dominated Phoenix despite coming up empty on five power-play chances. Kesler had a goal and an assist on one shift in his best game on the comeback trail from an August hip surgery that cost him training camp and the first five games of the season.
"My game is coming. It’s a work in progress and it’s tough not starting the season or having a summer to get your legs going," he said. "But I’ve been feeling better each and every game and more confident out there and I think it shows."
Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, who came into the game with an 8-1-1 record and a .946 save percentage over the last month, was strong in the first period stopping all 15 Vancouver shots including a breakaway by Kesler. But the Coyotes consistently coughed up the puck, eventually allowing the Canucks to blow the game open with goals on three consecutive shots early in the second period.
In the first, Henrik Sedin peeled away from Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata and fed Salo at the high slot. Salo used Coyote Rostislav Klesla as a screen and put the puck past Smith’s glove at 5:01 for his sixth goal to start the run. Just 1:31 later, Kesler picked off a lazy pass by former Canuck Raffi Torres and got a second shot at Smith. He buried a wrist shot for an unassisted goal. On the same shift, Kesler ran down a Kevin Bieksa shot behind the net and flipped a backhand pass into the slot where Booth was waiting at 7:13. Suddenly, the Coyotes were in a three-goal hole.
"Our execution was so down below par that it wasn’t even a game," said a disgusted Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "We kept turning it over and they kept taking the chances. We didn’t start very good, we didn’t have a good middle and we didn’t end very well. That sums it up right there."
Vancouver struck in another flurry late in the third. Lapierre started it with 7:09 left, picking Derek Morris’ pocket and sweeping a backhander by Smith for his fourth goal. One shift later, another Phoenix turnover gave Burrows two shots at Smith, and the second made it 5-0 Canucks.
"We kind of sneaked away in the first period, but you can’t give those guys turnovers. They are just too good," Torres said. "Overall, it was just a real poor effort from our team."
Penalty killing was a bright spot for Phoenix, as it has been all season. Phoenix stopped the NHL’s top-ranked power-play unit on all five chances, including 1:31 of 5-on-3 time just after Booth scored in an attempt to regain their footing. They have now stopped 34 of the last 36 enemy power plays and have allowed only eight goals on 71 chances this season (88.7 percent).
But Phoenix had just 10 shots in the first two periods and only a handful of scoring chances against Schneider, who won his first-ever meeting against the Coyotes.
"The only positive of the whole thing was the 5-on-3 kill," Tippett said. "After that, you can take the rest of it and scrap it."
Phoenix played their eighth straight game without center Daymond Langkow who has been on bereavement leave after the death of a close family member. Langkow said he will return to the lineup Saturday, when the Coyotes end a three-game homestand against Dallas.
"That’s the best part of the NHL, that you play a lot of games and we get a chance to do it again right away," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said.