VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks knew what was coming as soon as head coach John Torotorella read out the starting lineups.
Calgary Flames counterpart Bob Hartley was sending out his fourth line and Tortorella was going to do likewise.
Two seconds into Saturday’s game, all hell broke loose.
Chris Higgins scored in the fifth round of the shootout on a night that featured a nasty line brawl off the opening faceoff as the Canucks defeated the Flames 3-2.
Higgins beat Flames goalie Karri Ramo through the five-hole to help Vancouver snap a three-game losing streak, but all anyone was talking about afterwards was the donnybrook right after puck drop.
“Torts came in and told us that they’re starting those idiots over there so we’re going to match that and go with it,” said Canucks tough guy Tom Sestito. “I knew right off the hop (Brian) McGrattan was going to come after me.”
Tortorella made no apologies for matching the Flames’ muscle with his own.
“I see the starting lineup and I know the other guy across the bench and it’s easy for people to say ‘Well put the Sedins out there and it’s deflated.’ I can’t put our players at risk like that,” he said. “With the lineup that (Hartley) had, I am not going to put those types of players at risk, and that’s what ensues.
“I’m not proud of it. I’ve apologized to every one of the players involved in it. I don’t feel great about it at all.”
When the dust settled, Canucks forwards Dale Weise and Kellan Lain—who was making his NHL debut—along with defencemen Kevin Bieksa and Jason Garrison were given fighting majors and game misconducts. The same went for Calgary forwards Kevin Westgarth and Blair Jones, as well as defencemen Ladislav Smid and Chris Butler.
“It shouldn’t be in the game, that stuff,” said Tortorella. “I don’t want it in the game, but I have to protect my team, too. So all the pundits and all the people pissing and moaning about it, they don’t have a clue what a locker-room’s about and they don’t understand the whole circumstance involved in that type of situation.”
Sestito and McGrattan also got fighting majors, plus ten minute misconducts, with latter suffering a cut that splattered blood all over the ice.
“I see Westgarth going in for a draw. I don’t think the guy can play (defensive) zone coverage if he wanted to so I know he’s not playing centre,” said Sestito. “I knew it was coming.”
Tortorella screamed at Hartley from the bench, clearly furious that his counterpart put out Calgary’s tough guys in a period that saw scrums after almost every whistle and a total of 188 minutes in penalties.
Hartley said he started his fourth line to create some energy.
“Those guys are playing well for us. They got us a goal last game. We’re not scoring many goals,” said Hartley, whose team has lost 10 of its last 12. “We had zero intentions there. Those guys are playing hard for us. As far as I know they were the home team. They had the luxury to put whoever they wanted on the ice.
“He decided who he puts on. It is what it is.”
Tortorella was then caught by television cameras trying to get into the Calgary locker-room between periods, but declined to comment on that incident.
“I lifted my head and there he was,” said Hartley. “I just don’t understand. I got out of there. I don’t need to get suspended or fined. There is nothing to settle there. I just don’t understand what was going on.”
In terms of the actual game, Ryan Kesler had a goal and an assist, and Yannick Weber also scored in regulation for the Canucks (25-16-9), who got 31 saves from Roberto Luongo in his return from injury.
“It was a bizarre start to the game and kind of carried over for a little bit,” said Higgins. “I thought we stayed with it mentally. It was a tough game to stay with it but we did a great job.”
Mark Giordano and Matt Stajan scored for the Flames (16-26-7), who got 31 saves from Ramo.
“I am unbelievably proud of my guys. They battled hard,” said Hartley. “We played 10 minutes with three defencemen. We were even more short than the Canucks and we kept battling.
“I thought we played well enough to win that game.”
Stajan scored his seventh of the season, and first in 17 games, by chipping a backhand up and over Luongo at 4:01 of the third period to give the Flames a 2-1 lead.
With the crowd at Rogers Arena getting antsy, Vancouver’s 24th-ranked power play finally got something going at 11:48 when Weber ripped his second of the season past Ramo to tie the score.
The teams traded chances in a dogged overtime but neither could find a winner.
“We found a way to win,” said Tortorella. “It was an ugly situation with not many players playing, fourth game in six nights for us, losing all those people but we hung in there.
“Obviously the most important things are the two points. I just talked to the boys, that’s a good win for us. Not the other stuff, but just finding a way to win in that type of circumstance.”
After a nearly flawless December, the Canucks came into Saturday with just one win in their last nine (1-5-3), including a recent three-game road trip that saw Vancouver get outscored 11-1—thanks in large part to 9-1 loss against the Anaheim Ducks.
Giordano ripped his seventh of the season by Luongo at 1:37 of the second as Calgary’s 28th-ranked power play found a way past the league’s No. 2 penalty kill. Kesler got that one back at 3:50, redirecting a nice feed from Zack Kassian at 3:50 for his team-leading 18th of the campaign.
Vancouver’s Brad Richardson blasted a shot off the crossbar later in the period as both teams appeared to tire with the short benches as a result of the fight-filled first.
“We wanted to win the game for the guys that were out on that opening faceoff,” said Daniel Sedin. “We battled hard to come back.”
Notes: Henrik Sedin didn’t come out for the third period. Tortorella said his captain is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. … Tortorella said he felt bad for putting Lain, who had family in town for his first NHL game, out on the opening faceoff. “I’ll kick myself forever not having someone else there, but I’d do the same thing again if it came that way because I cannot put anybody else out there not knowing what’s going to happen and knowing the other guy across from me,” said Tortorella. … Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows returned to the lineup after missing 20 games with a broken jaw. … The Canucks won the first two meetings of the season against the Flames, 5-4 in overtime on Oct. 6 and 2-0 on Dec. 29. Both games were played in Calgary. … The Canucks visit the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday. … The Flames travel to San Jose to take on the Sharks on Monday.