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Defense the theme in battle for West lead

by Kevin Woodley
VANCOUVER -- The battle for first place in the NHL Thursday night comes down to a Vancouver Canucks team that has scored the most goals in the League against a St. Louis Blues squad that has given up the fewest in the Western Conference

If you ask Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, it's a perfect playoff preview.

Asked about the St. Louis showdown as preparation for playing a team like the Blues or Nashville in the postseason, Sedin said: "Keep lining up teams: Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, all good defensively. Everyone plays the same way, so once we get to the playoff it's going to be a grind from game one until wherever it takes us. It's going to be low-scoring games, tight games, so we have to get used to this."

The Canucks have certainly adjusted to tight games of late, going past regulation 13 times in the last 21 games, and winning eight before blowing third-period leads and losing in extra time the last two, snapping their perfect 26-0-0 run when leading after 40 minutes this season.

"This is the way the games are being played this year, it's very rarely you see us or anyone blow out teams," Sedin said. "It's a good sign. We've shown we can win in tight games and it doesn’t matter how they are played -- if it's Boston or Detroit, with more skill -- so I think it’s good for us."

Sedin said it starts in their own end, where they'd try to match the Blues.

Certainly defense has been key to St. Louis' turnaround under Ken Hitchcock, who took over a 6-7-0 team and has since guided them to a 34-10-7 record. Only the New York Rangers, with 124 goals against, have given up fewer than the Blues' 128 -- and in addition to having played three more games than New York, St. Louis surrendered 35 goals in those 13 games before Hitchcock replaced the fired Davis Payne.

The Canucks may not match the Blues defensively, but they have been almost as hot since a slow October start.

In fact, when St. Louis beat the Canucks on Nov. 4, Vancouver was just 6-6-1 and 10th in the west. The Blues were 5-6-0 and 14th.

Now they'll meet with top spot in the NHL on the line.

"Since the beginning of November they've been one, and we've been one of the best teams in the NHL," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, tipping his hat to Hitchcock for the job he's done. "And we both find ourselves right now fighting for that top spot."

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