VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -The Vancouver Canucks continued their unlikely ascent toward the top of the NHL. Goaltender Roberto Luongo is already there.
Jan Bulis and Tommi Santala scored in the first period, and Luongo made 20 saves for his league-best 43rd win, leading the Canucks to a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night.
It was the fourth straight win for the Canucks, who improved to 9-1-1 in March and moved three points ahead of Minnesota atop the Northwest Division. Picked by most before the season to miss the playoffs, Vancouver has 96 points and is just four back of the Predators, who still lead the Western Conference and Central Division by one point over Detroit despite losing three of four.
"Our main focus is to win the division, and if other teams falter then we might be able to sneak up a bit," said Luongo. "We just have to keep winning."
That hasn't been a problem for the Canucks since Christmas. Vancouver went into the holidays one game under .500, but is 27-5-5 since. The Canucks continued that run against Nashville despite missing two of their top three defensemen, with Sami Salo and Willie Mitchell both nursing groin injuries.
It didn't matter early, as the Canucks spent most of the first period in the Predators' end, outshooting them 17-4 and scoring both goals.
"I said all along there's a lot of depth, especially on D," said Luongo. "We've got guys that can step in and fill in roles when guys go down."
The Predators, who could have clinched a playoff spot with a victory, weren't as fortunate. They had Peter Forsberg back for a second straight game after missing six with an upper body injury, but were missing five other forwards with 60 goals combined. Nashville dressed seven defenseman and just 11 forwards, but ironically it was their play in the defensive end that hurt them early.
"The first period we played in our zone," said Forsberg. "We got caught trying to make plays. We turned the puck over numerous times and there were a lot of defensive coverage mistakes."
Bulis opened the scoring off a rush midway through the period with a long, low slap shot from the top of the faceoff circle that hit goalie Tomas Vokoun's left skate and deflected in.
"A bad, bad goal," said Vokoun, who finished with 28 saves. "It's a shot from the side, a harmless shot. You take thousands of those in practice and it just kind of slid under my pad. It's a 0-0 game and I've got to come up with those."
Bulis agreed, joking that his fellow Czech may have given him one.
"It was a shaky goal," he said. "In warmup he skates around the red line and I know him a little bit, and I said, `Come on, let one in for me, so I found it a pretty soft goal from his point of view, and I was kind of laughing if he let it in."
Luongo made his best save of the game off a point-blank one-timer by David Legwand 15 seconds later. That allowed Santala to double the lead when he scored his first goal of the season - and first as a Canuck - with 2:03 left in the period. Santala snapped Trevor Linden's pass just under the arm of Vokoun on the stick side.
Nashville was fortunate not to be down by more after Mattias Ohlund jammed a puck through Vokoun. Defenseman Greg Zanon swept it off the goal line. Taylor Pyatt's sharp-angle shot also flirted with the goal line after hitting the inside of Vokoun's blocker early in the second period. And defenseman Kevin Bieksa hit the crossbar instead of an empty net on a 4-on-3 advantage early in the third period, the best chance for a power play that finished 0-for-7.
"It was a really solid effort by every guy in this locker room tonight," Luongo said. "We didn't give them much all night. Even in the third period they were trailing by two goals and we didn't give them anything."
Luongo preserved his fourth shutout of the season - the 31st of his career - with another good save off Legwand on a Predators power play midway through a third period that saw the Canucks kill off three straight Nashville power plays.
"It's so much easier to kill penalties when you know 1/8Luongo 3/8 is behind you," Bulis said.
Notes: In addition to Jordin Tootoo serving the first of his five-game suspension for punching out Dallas D Stephane Robidas on Saturday, Nashville was missing Steve Sullivan (back), Scott Nichol (thumb), Martin Erat (knee) and Scott Hartnell (foot). ... Mitchell and Salo could both be back Sunday against Colorado. ... The Predators, who are 21-15-2 on the road, continue their trip in Calgary on Thursday and Edmonton on Saturday before playing five of the final six at home. ... Luongo is four wins away from tying Bernie Parent's NHL record of 47 wins, set in 1974-75.