VANCOUVER – A pair of late-season additions are making an impact for the Vancouver Canucks in their chase for the Stanley Cup this playoff.
Forward Chris Higgins and centre Maxim Lapierre, both acquired at the trade deadline, have joined right-winger Jannik Hansen on the Canucks’ third line.
The three have banged bodies, been tough on the forecheck, and contributed offensively. Higgins scored the lone goal in Vancouver’s 1-0 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal.
“In those three players you have three good skaters,” coach Alain Vigneault said Friday after a small group of Canucks practised at Rogers Arena.
“You have three guys that put a lot of pressure on the other team as far as finishing checks. They are just working their butts off right now.”
The Canucks hope to keep pounding the Predators and limiting their scoring chances in Game 2 Saturday night (CBC, 9 p.m. ET).
The best-of-seven series returns to Nashville for games Tuesday and Thursday.
The Canucks outshot the Predators 30-20 and controlled most of Thursday’s Game 1. Even with that firepower Vancouver managed to get just one puck past Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Forward Tanner Glass said the Canucks need to make Rinne’s life more difficult.
“As far as scoring on this guy, I think we have to get more traffic and make his life tougher,” said Glass.
“He’s a tall goalie. He tends to get over the screen and see things. The tougher we make it on him, the easier it will be for us.”
Nashville’s Steve Sullivan said the Predators must show more effort against Vancouver.
“You can’t correct X’s and O’s if you don’t have effort,” said Sullivan. “No matter what your game plan is, if you’re not going to put the effort behind it, it doesn’t matter.”
The series is becoming a preview of this year’s NHL awards.
It was announced Friday that Vigneault and Nashville’s Barry Trotz are both finalists for the coach of the year award.
Rinne and Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo are finalists for the Vezina Trophy, given to the best goaltender. Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Nashville’s David Poile are finalists for the award given to the top general manager.
Other finalists include Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin (MVP) and Nashville’s Shea Weber (top defenceman).
The Canucks third line can hurt you along the boards and on the scoreboard.
Higgins, who the Canucks obtained in a trade from Florida, and Hansen, in his third full season with Vancouver, have scored two goals each during the playoffs. The lanky Lapierre, picked up from Anaheim, has shown some muscle, leading the Canucks with 34 hits.
Playing physical is a role the six-foot-two, 207-pound Lapierre enjoys.
“It’s fun, especially in the playoffs when you play the same guys four to seven times within two weeks,” said the Saint-Leonard, Que., native.
“It’s kind of annoying for the other team to have somebody in your face all the time. This is the type of game I want to play. I know when it’s time to be physical, to go for the big hit.”
Lapierre is more than brawn. He won all six faceoffs he took in Thursday’s win, including some while penalty killing.
“It changes a lot of things in the game when you start with the puck,” said Lapierre. “We take big pride on it.”
For most of the season the Canucks’ third line consisted of centre Manny Malhotra playing between Hansen and Raffi Torres.
Malhotra suffered a season-ending eye injury in the middle of March, forcing Vigneault to mix and match as he tried to find the right combination.
He settled on the current unit in Game 6 of Vancouver’s first-round series against Chicago.
“Those guys are easy to play with,” said Higgins.“Jannik has really opened my eyes.
“He’s a very talented player. They are both really responsible with the puck and they work really hard.”
Higgins and Lapierre were teammates in Montreal for a couple of seasons, where they sometimes played on a line together.
“When things weren’t going our way the coach would put us together in the third period,” he said.
“I think it’s pretty simple with Jannik and him. We want to use our speed, put everything at their net, be strong in our zone and chances willcome.”
Nashville’s Mike Fisher said the Canucks’ third line was effective, but the Predators also made them look good.
“They played with some energy and were hard on the forecheck,” said Fisher.
“A lot of the things they got were our mistakes. Things we have to clean up and can’t let happen again.”
While the third line is drawing praise, questions are swirling about the play of Henrik Sedin.
The Canuck captain has not scored a goal in eight games. Usually the setup man for twin brother Daniel, Henrik has managed just one assist in the last five games. Overall he has five points and is a minus-four in the playoffs.
Never known as a grinder, Henrik has not seemed strong enough to win many of the puck battles.
He had six shots on net Thursday night, but only 18 so far in the playoffs. On several occasions Henrik has chosen to dish off the puck instead of shooting, even when looking at some good scoring chances.
Daniel Sedin, who led the regular season with 104 points (41 goals, 63 assists) has five goals and two assists during the playoffs. His production has flattened out with a goal in Game 6 against Chicago his only point in four games.
Vigneault said he isn’t worried about the brothers.
“If you are looking at points, maybe the ratio you are used to (with Henrik) is a little bit down,” he said. “His scoring chances and what he’s doing on the ice, and the effort he is putting in, is what we see all the time.
“It’s more challenging now. You have the best teams in the league. You are going to get the best (defencemen) and the best forwards. It’s tough to score on any team. I am very confident in those guys, that they are going to contribute.”