VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks took a page out of the St. Louis' playbook Thursday night to stay ahead atop the NHL's overall standings.
In a tight-checking game with few good chances but lots of playoff-like intensity, Vancouver kept a tired Blues team to the outside all night, then turned things up at the other end in the third period, with Alexandre Burrows scoring the winning goal 4:17 in, and Chris Higgins adding an empty-netter with 38.1 seconds left. Roberto Luongo made 29 saves for his 58th career shutout as the Canucks became the first team to 90 points this season with a 2-0 victory at Rogers Arena.
After a near-perfect game for a stingy Blues team playing on back-to-back nights and for the fourth time in six days on the road, it came down to a tired mistake and a lucky bounce. The Canucks took advantage of both on the winner.
Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa whiffed on a shot from the left point, but the puck bounced straight to Dan Hamhuis at the other side. His shot went wide, but kicked hard off the end boards to Burrows at the side of the net -- and his sharp-angle backhand hit Brian Elliott in the shoulder and fluttered into the net.
"With his skill set, he's probably doing that on purpose," Burrows with a grin of the wide Hamhuis shot he turned into the winning goal. "Both teams were playing well defensively, and we were able to get the bounce going our way in the third and score. We stayed patient and we got a break and got the win."
It snapped a two-game skid – though both losses were in extra time – as the Canucks improved to 13-1-5 in their 19 games and moved three points ahead of St. Louis and Detroit in the West and went two up on the New York Rangers atop the NHL.
"These guys are right behind us, so it was a big game," said Luongo, who has three shutouts this season. "We wanted to create a little separation there and we were able to do that tonight. But obviously there's lots of hockey to be played."
Elliott, starting for the first time in five games after Jaroslav Halak played the night before in Edmonton, finished with 22 saves for the Blues, who had their season-high road win streak snapped at four games. St. Louis dropped behind Detroit, which also has 87 points, in the race for first place in the Central Division. The Wings have a game in hand, which they'll use Friday night against Minnesota.
"We measure ourselves by this, we know we're not quite there," St. Louis captain David Backes said of the first-place showdown. "We have a little work to do."
There was no shortage of it early on from the Blues.
Despite playing the night before, it was the Blues who held the early edge in play and shots. St. Louis put 10 shots on net before the Canucks, playing the first game back after a six-game road trip, managed their first at 7:44. But St. Louis seemed to sputter slightly after its power play, ranked 23rd in the NHL and 29th on the road, failed to generate much on its first chance midway through the period -- with Luongo lunging to make his best save off Vladimir Sobotka on the Blues' only good chance alone atop the slot on a rebound. The puck went straight up and might have gone in, but Luongo blockered it onto the top of the net.
After the impressive start, the Blues generated only 19 shots during the final 52 minutes, but were still in the scoreless game after 40 minutes.
"We were exactly where we wanted to be after the second period, but we were tired," coach Ken Hitchcock said when asked about a pair of failed clears shortly before Burrows' goal. "We made tired mistakes, and they were on the mark. They checked us hard in the third period, and we didn't have the energy to keep going."
Hitchcock credited the Canucks for rolling four lines in the third period, and in effect taking a page out of what has made the Blues so successful of late.
"We do it with forecheck," Hitchcock said when asked about the tight defensive play. "They did to us in the third period what we usually do to most teams. They hemmed us in -- same thing we do to teams, they hemmed us in."
With trade deadline acquisitions Samuel Pahlsson and Zack Kassian playing their second games on the third and fourth lines since arriving Monday, and Marc-Andre Gragnani playing his first game on defense, the Canucks managed to do what they had failed to do the last two games – shut it down in the third.
"It seems we have a pretty balanced lineup now, all four lines," Higgins said. "The ice time seemed to be pretty evenly distributed. That's a big strength of this team, especially towards the end of the season when the schedule gets more grueling. We can roll four lines and count on all of them to make the right plays."
Which made things a lot easier on their goaltender.
Luongo made a last-second blocker save on a screened shot from the point early in the second period, and stopped captain David Backes from the high slot a short while later. But for the most part, the Canucks made his life easy, taking a page out of the Blues' book as the NHL's tightest defensive team – St. Louis came in with four 1-0 wins already this season, while the Canucks had yet to play a 1-0 game -- by taking away the middle of the ice and limiting the Blues' second chances at one end, while continuing to press physically at the other.
"We want to be able to close games out," Luongo said. "We did that tonight. They didn't have many scoring chances … the whole game pretty much."
Hitchcock credited the Canucks for it, but said the Blues would be back, hopefully with currently injured re-enforcements up front like Alex Steen, Matt D'Agostini and veteran Jamie Langenbrunner, who were all out Thursday.
"We wanted to see where we stood," he said. "We got horses coming into the barn still. We need to be loaded up to play them and then we'll see next time."
If it's to be this season, it will have to be in the playoffs since this was the final regular season meeting. Of course, that won't feel much different.
"It felt a little bit like a playoff game on the ice," Burrows said.