VANCOUVER - The slumping Vancouver Canucks went back to practice Thursday, hoping a strong performance against the NHL's last-place team will help get them out of their funk.
The Canucks (42-20-8) have lost six of eight games, but still rank as a Stanley Cup contender based on their position near the top of the Western Conference standings.
However, all bets are off as they prepare to host the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets (22-41-7) on Saturday.
"Right now, it's no secret that we're not playing as well as we can," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.
For the past several weeks, the Canucks have faced teams battling for their playoff lives. But the Blue Jackets, who have been in disarray most of the season, pose a low-water mark as the Canucks try to right their listing ship with 12 games to go in the regular season.
With a playoff berth seemingly assured months ago, many observers, especially those hosting radio talk shows, have suggested the Canucks have little to play for standings-wise. Their desire, or lack thereof, has been under close scrutiny lately.
Vigneault said his team should not lack incentive in spite of the Blue Jackets' also-ran status.
"Losing is no fun," Vigneault said. "I don't think we've won too many games lately. It's not fun ? so that should be motivation enough."
Goaltender Roberto Luongo suggested the Canucks had plenty of motivation last season as the fought to win their first President's Trophy for finishing atop the NHL and secure home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. He suggested the same "huge" incentives apply now.
But the Canucks need to go back to the basics, keep things simple, relax and have fun.
"We know we have some issue that we have to address, but there still is 12 games left," he said. "It's not rocket science right now. We've just got to make sure that we don't over-think things or try to do too much on the ice."
The Canucks are coming off a disappointing 5-4 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday, when they showed early spark and jumped out to a 2-0 lead after Vigneault shuffled his forward lines and defence pairings. But the hosts could not maintain the high level for a full 60 minutes.
The Blue Jackets, who fired coach Scott Arniel early in the season and replaced him with Todd Richards on an interim basis, were blanked 3-0 in Edmonton on Wednesday and have lost six of their past 10 games.
But after a one-sided loss to the struggling Montreal Canadiens last Saturday, the Canucks are wary of a repeat poor performance against another non-contender.
"They're going to be a team that's, basically, fighting for jobs, fighting for contracts, fighting for everything," said Vancouver centre Ryan Kesler. "They're the teams you've got to worry about the most, because they've got nothing to lose, and they're going to be playing loose and going on the offence all night. So we've got to be ready for them."
The Canucks are looking to eliminate odd-man rushes that proved to be their undoing in the loss to Phoenix as the Coyotes rallied from their early deficit. The Canucks outshot their opponents 43-33 and spent most of the game in the Phoenix end, but could not control the Coyotes' counter-attacks when necessary.
Vigneault wants the defencemen have to make better reads on when to move forward on the attack and when to stay back.
"There's always that fine line when it's time to go and not time to go," he said. "And, right now, we're on the wrong side of that fine line."
Despite the recent struggles, the Canucks have shown some positive signs. Kesler, an admittedly streaky scorer, has a goal in each of his past three games. Meanwhile, left winger Chris Higgins is on a three-game points streak.
"The key with playing teams out of the playoffs is: End it early," Higgins said. "Make no mistake that you want to play right from the opening whistle, and take the hope out of them."
He said each Canuck has to avoid doing too much and just focus on their individual jobs. Many have questioned the club's mental state, but he insisted players are in a good frame of mind heading towards the playoffs.
"We're okay," Higgins said. "We're a pretty confident group. You (media) guys make it seem like we're not, but we're a pretty confident group. We know we have the talent and the work ethic to turn it around before the playoffs."
Newly-acquired defenceman Jack Johnson, who joined the Jackets at the trade deadline for Jeff Carter from Los Angeles, said visitors, said he has constantly been surprised by the positive atmosphere in the Blue Jackets' dressing room. Although Johnson and his mates are out of the playoffs, they like trying to "screw up" other teams' playoff positions.
"It's always nice to play a great team like Vancouver," he said. "There's reasons every night to put on your best game and win hockey games."
Notes_Vigneault hedged on whether he would keep going with Mason Raymond on the top line alongside of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, adding anyone who plays with the twins usually plays well. ... Centre-left winger Manny Malhotra, who has struggled this season after dealing with a career-threatening eye injury, is expected to play sparingly between now and the end of the regular season because of an undisclosed personal matter that kept him out Wednesday. "He'll be in and out of the surroundings for a while," said Vigneault. Malhotra practised Thursday. ... Left winger Andrew Ebbett, who broke his collarbone Jan. 7 in Boston was expected to be out the rest of the regular season and playoffs, has resumed practising with the team. Ebbett said he hopes to be cleared for contact drills next week. ... Vigneault will decide on his goaltender Friday.