VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are trying to get ready for the playoffs by tightening up in their own end and playing better defense all over the ice.
In doing so, they may have kept Colorado out of the postseason altogether.
Chris Higgins scored the only goal on a shorthanded breakaway late in the first period, and backup goalie Cory Schneider made 43 saves as the Canucks again dealt the Avalanche's fading playoff hopes a serious -- and potentially final -- blow with a 1-0 victory at Rogers Arena on Wednesday night.
"This is good practice," Higgins said. "It's going to be a little more intense with the crowds in the playoffs, but we're getting comfortable in these situations."
That's especially true of Higgins, who scored the tying goal and overtime winner in Colorado four days earlier and made it three straight against the Avs with 2:56 left in the first period. It was enough to give Vancouver a second-straight 1-0 victory over an opponent fighting for its playoff life, extending the Canucks' win streak to four games despite only scoring seven goals in that stretch.
"I've said this many times, you never critique a win," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "I know some other people will take a jab at it for me."
Higgins was among them after failing to build on the lead.
"You'd like to be up 2-0, 3-0 at the end and not put it all on Schneider's shoulder to make big stops," Higgins said. "It could go in off a skate or an errant stick."
It almost did a couple of times as the desperate Avalanche fired 16 third-period shots at Schneider, including several scrambles in front. But none found a way behind him, dropping the Avalanche to 0-3-1 in the last four games, and almost certainly out of the Western Conference playoffs for a second straight season.
"It's 99 percent that our playoff lives are on the line," said forward Paul Stastny. "So we just had to give it all we had and put as much rubber on the net, cause confusion, traffic in front of the net. It obviously wasn't enough."
Semyon Varlamov finished with 21 saves, including a clutch breakaway stop on David Booth to keep it close. But the costly late-season slide continued, leaving the Avalanche in 10th place, two points behind Los Angeles and San Jose for the final playoff spot in the west. With only three games left to play – the Kings and Sharks each have five to play still, as does ninth-place Phoenix, which is still one point ahead of Colorado – Colorado needs help to avoid missing the playoffs.
Their record against the Canucks is a big reason why.
The Avalanche hasn't beaten the Vancouver in regulation in almost three full seasons dating back to Oct. 3, 2009. The Canucks are 15-0-2 since then, including a sweep of all six meetings between the division rivals this season, with the Avalanche only picking up two points for overtime and shootout losses.
"I'm proud of the way our guys played," coach Joe Sacco said. "We certainly left everything out there on the ice surface and it's unfortunate we couldn't come away with at least one, or score a goal here tonight. We threw everything we could at them in the second and third period and their goalie was good."
So was Varlamov. He helped Colorado survive a lengthy 5-on-3 midway through the first period, but fell behind while on a man advantage of their own after Matt Hunwick lost the puck at the blue line. Samuel Pahlsson sent Higgins in alone behind the Avalanche defenseman for a shot past the blocker of a retreating Varlamov -- Higgins' first shorthanded goal since Feb. 3, 2009.
"Sammy just waited for me to get that half-step," Higgins said. "He could have thrown it up right away, but he took the time to wait for me to get open."
Schneider, starting despite a 38-save shutout by Roberto Luongo on Monday, made his best save 1:36 in, sliding across to his left to glove down Mark Olver's one-timer of Matt Duchene's cross-ice pass. He got a break when Paul Stastny fired wide on backdoor attempt early in the second period, and another when Jamie McGinn couldn't pull a pass out of his skates with an open net, but stuffed Olver again alone in tight after a clean 2-on-1 break with 1:20 left in the period.
Schneider also slid to his right to get a blocker on David Jones' backdoor attempt eight minutes into the third period to preserve his third shutout of the season.
"The shots were lop-sided but the actual quality chances we did a good job of eliminating those," Schneider said. "They were pinching every time they could to get that equalizer because it was essentially an elimination game for them."
He had some help from a Colorado power play that came in ranked first in the NHL on the road, but finished 0-for-5. In addition to surrendering the shorthanded goal, the Avalanche man advantage gave up another great 2-on-1 chance that was fired wide, and only got one shot on a chance with six minutes left.
"I didn't think our execution or compete was as high as it was 5-on-5 -- it needed to be better on the power play, no question," Sacco said. "It's frustrating for everybody right now, but I'm proud of the way our guys fought to the end."
So were the Canucks, who moved two points behind St. Louis atop the Western Conference despite missing top-four defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who took a maintenance day, and top-goal scorer Daniel Sedin, who missed a fourth game with a concussion. Schneider deserved a lot of the credit.
"Our goaltender was obviously the best player on the ice," Vigneault said.
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