VANCOUVER -- When Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall stepped up and caught Canucks center Ryan Kesler with his head down to deliver a devastating hit early in the third period Wednesday night, it had all the makings of a momentum-changing blow.
An angry Kesler was penalized for trying to fight a retreating Kronwall at the tail end of the lengthy scrum that followed, and the Red Wings were headed to the power play down a goal -- and with Vancouver's best penalty-killer bleeding in the penalty box.
Instead, the momentum swung the other way on another controversial play.
Alexander Edler scored shorthanded after Jannik Hansen wiped out Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard on a partial breakaway -- Hansen said he was pushed, but Howard, who tried to attack him after, said he wasn't -- and Roberto Luongo helped the Canucks hold on for a wildly entertaining 4-2 win over Detroit.
"It was nice to stick it back in their face," said Hansen, adding he got "just a little push in the back (from Henrik Zetterberg) and it's hard to keep your balance when you are cutting across. We really wanted to get it done. We felt it shouldn't have played out the way it did and wanted to get it for Kes."
Howard, who had to be pulled off Hansen, didn't see it the same way.
"I was interfered with," said Howard, who finished with 21 saves, many of them spectacular, to keep Detroit in a game they twice trailed by two. "Z never pushed him, I watched the replay. Hansen leans into him, loses his footing and steams me, but [those are] the breaks."
As for his animated reaction, Howard is fed up with all the crease contact.
"I'm just sick and tired of getting run over every single game," he said.
The hit that put the Canucks down a man was just as heavily debated in both rooms, with Kesler upset Kronwall didn't accept his challenge, and the Swedish defender wondering why he should after a clean check.
With Kesler wheeling out of his zone along the right boards and his head down, Kronwall stepped up and backed into him. Kronwall's feet appeared to come slightly off the ice just before he delivered another signature thunderous hit.
"I saw he was backing up and put my head down for a second and he hits me," said Kesler, a small cut still open under his right eye. "That's obviously his go-to move always, and my only problem with the hit is he doesn't stand up for himself afterwards. If you are going to hit guys like that you are going to have to drop the gloves."
Kronwall didn't see it that way.
"The puck was right there and I just tried to put a clean check in," Kronwall said. "To me it felt like a clean hit and it's a game of you get hit and you take hits, and I just think that's part of the game."
Detroit coach Mike Babcock agreed.
"When they start taking that out of hockey, then we don't have hockey anymore," Babcock said. "One guy had the puck, he's coming up the wall, the other guy's at him -- good hit."
Except, Kronwall admitted, if his feet left the ground.
"I didn't feel it that way but if that's the case that's nothing we want in our game and I'm sure I'll get a call from Shanny [Brendan Shanahan] if that's the case," he said.
Kronwall was more upset the hit didn't swing the momentum to his team.
The Canucks had plenty of it early, showing off a deep forward group against a Detroit team that has long prided itself on a balanced attack.
Vancouver got first-period goals from each of its top three lines, with Chris Higgins and Cody Hodgson scoring 21 seconds apart. Alexandre Burrows also scored before the first period was over, and Luongo overcame a strange goal in the opening period with 38 saves as the Canucks leapfrogged Detroit and St. Louis in the Western Conference and moved within a point of the Minnesota Wild atop the Northwest Division.
Ex-Canuck Todd Bertuzzi and Drew Miller, with his fourth goal in three games, twice pulled the Red Wings within one goal before Edler, who later left the game with a sore back, banged in the controversial shorthanded goal 3:30 into the third period.
"To me, it's no foul on them at all but it's no goal," Babcock said. "The goalie's got to be allowed to play. That's what the rules are, that's what they stipulate. But that's life. Anytime you dig yourself a hole, like we did against a good team, you're going to have a hard time coming back."
Luongo, who sealed the win with spectacular saves off Darren Helm and Pavel Datsyuk with four minutes left, didn't have much sympathy -- not after Bertuzzi nudged Salo on top of him and he wasn't able to recover before the big Detroit forward scored.
"What goes around comes around," said Luongo, who was at his best while his team was being outshot 16-4 in the third period. "It's always upsetting when you feel you were interfered with. I was pissed off after the first goal, and in a way it was kind of karma that we got one later in the third."
It raised the temperature to match the pace of a game that up to that point featured few whistles, plenty of speed and skill, and just one penalty through two periods.
It was a wild finish to a day that started with both streaking teams -- the Canucks are 7-1-1 the last nine and Detroit lost for just the second time in seven -- and talking about looking forward to the fast-paced, attacking games they usually play against each other. Ten minutes in, they delivered it, starting with Mason Raymond being sent in alone on Howard and Higgins banging in his rebound, becoming the fourth Canuck already this season to get into double digits with his 10th goal.
Hodgson, a rookie on the third line, added his seventh of the season on the next shift to double the lead, pulling up on a partial break and blasting a slap shot from between the top of the circles past Howard's blocker, off the post and in.
"You see so much skill in both lineups, so you know there are going to be pretty goals but it's a different part of the game we saw later," Hansen said.
It was one Kesler was happy to see his team answer.
"That was a good way to stick it to them," said Kesler, saying he "had no idea" what a reporter was talking about when asked about retaliatory knee on Zetterberg later in the third period. "We're not a team that's going to get pushed around and I think you saw that in the third period."