Now they can risk a few furtive glances at the road ahead and the four clubs they could catch in the overall NHL standings. But not too many glances. “It’s a bit harder looking at a situation like that,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said Wednesday after his 20-save effort backstopped Vancouver to a 2-0 victory over the Nashville Predators.
“I think our main focus is to win our division and then if other teams falter, we might be able to sneak up a bit. We just have to keep winning.”
Vancouver’s fourth win in a row and second in two home games over a division leader left the Canucks three points clear of the persistent Minnesota Wild in the race for the Northwest Division title.
But they are also only five points behind the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL’s overall leader, after going 28-5-5 since Christmas.
In the Western Conference, they trail Nashville by four points, Detroit by three and Anaheim by two.
“Honestly, we haven’t made mention of it once but if it happens, it happens,” Brendan Morrison said of catching teams ahead of Vancouver.
“I like the demeanour of this group of guys, we’re going about our business.”
Jan Bulis, with his 12th goal of the season, and Tommi Santala, with his first as a Canuck and first in more than three years, scored in a first period where the Canucks outshot the listless Predators 17-4.
Vancouver helped Luongo earn his fourth shutout of the season and 31st of his career against the highest-scoring team in the West without top defencemen Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo, both recovering from groin injuries.
Rory Fitzpatrick played 13 minutes 45 seconds on the Canuck blue-line and minor league call-up Alex Edler added 8:19. Brent Sopel, acquired at the trade deadline as insurance, played more than 20 minutes and was on the ice for both goals.
“I think in all aspects of the game we were solid,” said Luongo, who earned his NHL-leading 43rd win. “We didn’t really give them anything.”
Luongo is also closing in on the NHL record of 47 wins in a season set in 1973-74 by Bernie Parent of Philadelphia.
The closest Nashville came to scoring was when Alexander Radulov was alone in front but made too many dekes and saw the puck dribble off his stick and wide of the goal.
Bulis opened the scoring with a soft goal when he had time to tee up a low slapshot from the side boards. The puck went in off goalie Tomas Vokoun’s left pad.
“I thought that was a weak goal,” said Nashville coach Barry Trotz. “We turned the puck over but it wasn’t a very good goal and should have been stopped.”
Now it’s Vokoun, who had Kevin Bieksa blast a shot off the crossbar in the third period, who is looking over his shoulder at the tight race for top spot in the West.
“I hate to look at the standings and at what other teams are doing,” he said. “It’s more important for us on how we play and we certainly didn’t play well today – at least for 60 minutes.”
Santala counted his first goal since Nov. 16, 2003 when Trevor Linden’s pass from the corner found him in the slot and the Finn scored on a quick wrist shot.
Morrison said the Canucks beat the speedy Predators at their own game.
“I thought our transition game tonight was great, especially in the first period,” he said. “We carried pucks deep on the (defence) and tried to be physical on them.”
One of the most physical was linemate Matt Cooke who’s trying to stay on an even keel despite the Canucks’ run that has seen their record improve to 45-23-6.
“We control our own destiny and the biggest thing with that is making sure you’re focused game in and game out,” he said.
The 47-21-6 Predators couldn’t seem to find their skating legs against the tight-checking Canucks.
“First period, I thought we were outplayed and outworked,” said Peter Forsberg. “I thought we came back a bit in the second but we were too deep in the hole and Luongo shut the door.
“We had a lot of turnovers and defensive zone coverage mistakes and that cost us.”
Notes: Mitchell and Salo could return Sunday against Colorado … Nashville was missing five forwards – Steve Sullivan (back spasms), Scott Hartnell (foot), Martin Erat (knee), Scott Nichol (thumb) and Jordin Tootoo (suspension) … the Predators conclude their Northwest Division swing Thursday in Calgary and Saturday in Edmonton, then play five straight at home.