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Canucks point to homestand for improvement

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks came into their home game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday after winning three of four on the road and talking a lot about finally gaining some traction.

Unless they find a way keep it during this five-game homestand, what has been an up-and-down season under new coach John Tortorella could end with the Canucks out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.

If that seems severe given Vancouver could have moved past Phoenix and into what would be the final Western Conference playoff position with a win in regulation Friday, consider Phoenix has played two fewer games.

If it seems like an overreaction for a team coming off a good road trip, consider the Canucks are 5-5-3 at Rogers Arena and have one win in their past six at home (against the Columbus Blue Jackets).

To make a push into a playoff position instead of hanging on at the bottom of the race, Vancouver needs to defeat more good teams more often.

"Every game is big for us, but [Friday] especially," forward Ryan Kesler said. "The way our home record is, the way we ended things on the road, we want to keep this rolling."

For a reality check on the season to date, consider that prior to Friday, Vancouver was 4-6-3 against teams with playoff standing, and two of those wins came against an Eastern Conference opponent. In fact, 10 of 15 victories have come against teams from the East.

The Canucks have five wins in 14 games (5-6-3) against the Western Conference, with 36 of the final 52 games against those teams. For Kesler, it starts at home.

"We have to make this building a tough place," he said, "We have to make it known for teams coming in that it is going to be a long, tough night."

Tortorella said the Canucks played better during the six-game homestand that finished with one win than it did while winning three of four on the road.

The biggest difference was finish. Despite dominating for long stretches, the Canucks didn't convert enough scoring chances and blew three third-period leads.

They've been held to one goal in 10 of 30 games and at times seem ill-suited to finish the type of in-tight chances created by the their coach's request to throw more pucks at the net. But Tortorella said the goals will come as long as the Canucks continue to create those chances, and the defensive lapses that have followed their inability to extend leads are being corrected.

"I've said it right on through when we won three out of four on the road, I thought we were playing better when we were losing games at home," Tortorella said. "So there is no science to my thinking home or away. We are trying to be the best we can every night, and obviously the last homestand we had some problems finishing some games, some detail problems. I think we are beginning to iron those out."

Those wrinkles are perhaps not surprising for a team trying to change its mindset under a new coach who preaches aggressiveness.

"We haven't perfected the system," Kesler said. "There are spurts of perfection, but I think we see there are lapses where we don't make one or two mistakes, we make three and four, and it seems like we are giving up timely goals and not scoring timely goals."

Kesler said that started to change on the road.

"We need to learn how much to push, when to push, and when to sit back," he said. "I think we're getting there as the games go on."

The power play has finally shown signs of life with a goal in six straight games, but it remains 25th in the NHL at 14.1 percent. That lack of production has been offset somewhat by the League's best penalty kill (89 percent), but the unit will be challenged after losing shorthanded specialist Alexandre Burrows to a broken jaw and top defenseman Alexander Edler to a knee injury on the road trip.

Goalie Roberto Luongo, who is adjusting to less steady action and tougher sight lines under Tortorella's demands for puck blocking and collapsing forwards, is going to have to improve on a .914 save percentage that is five points below his career average.

There were many times during the previous homestand when Vancouver buzzed the other net for long stretches without scoring, then gave up one good chance that ended up behind Luongo. But the goalie said he can't get caught up in what is, or isn't, happening at the other end.

"You can't think when you play," Luongo said. "If you start thinking about, 'Oh, I can't let in two goals,' that just distracts from what you are trying to do on the ice."

For the Canucks, thinking they are playing well enough to win, and talking about being close, isn't enough either.

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