VANCOUVER – The game had been over for 45 minutes but Lee Sweatt was still standing by his locker wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt, his hockey pants, and huge smile.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa walked past, holding the hands of his two young children, as reporters crowded around Sweatt.
”You still giving interviews?” Bieksa asked with a grin.
For Sweatt, it was like a Hollywood script in which he was the star. The 25-year-old defenceman, playing in his first NHL game, scored the winning goal in the Vancouver Canucks’ 2-1 victory over the Nashville Predators Wednesday night.
“I never would have thought I would score in the first game,” said the curly-haired native of Elburn, Ill., who the Canucks signed this year as a free agent.
“I just shot the puck. It’s a dream come true.”
Sweatt, who was called up from the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose to replace the injured Alex Edler, broke a 1-1 tie at 12:31 of the third period.
Breaking in on the left side, he took a pass from Daniel Sedin and fired a hard shot that went underneath the blocker of Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. The play took less than a few seconds but it’s a memory burned forever in Sweatt’s mind.
Arms raised in celebration, Sweatt skated into the corner where he was mobbed by his teammates, including Alex Burrows. The sellout crowd of 18,860 cheered wildly.
“He played really well for us,” said Burrows, who scored the other Canuck goal. “It’s nice to see the kid score a big goal for us.”
During the game Sweatt had 8:49 of ice time, one hit and scored on his only shot.
Truth be told, Sweatt was as surprised as anyone to see the red light go on. As he was shooting, he was thinking about where the rebound would go.
“He (Rinne) came out so far,” said Sweatt, who played four years in Europe before returning to North America. “I knew one of the Sedins was on the rebound side, so if there was going to be a rebound it was going to hopefully be right to them.
“I was just trying to keep it simple. It was a great pass. All I did was shoot the puck. It just happened to go in.”
Rinne made 33 saves on the night, but wished he had made one more.
“He made a good shot,” the Finnish goalie said about the winning goal. “I’d like to have that back.
“We turned the puck over and they made us pay.”
The Canucks head into the all-star break with a 31-10-9 record for 71 points. The win moved Vancouver back into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for first place overall in the NHL.
The Canucks have not lost a game at home in regulation time since Dec. 5.
The match was scoreless for 40 minutes and the Canucks played without intensity. Vancouver fell behind 1-0 early in the third on Shea Weber’s goal. That seemed to wake up the Canucks, who outshot Nashville 17-7 in the final period.
“We weren’t real sharp in the first period and they played real well,” said Canuck captain Henrik Sedin. ”As the game moved forward, we got better.
”Down by a goal, we stuck with the plan. We found a way by doing the right things to tie it up and score a nice goal to win.”
Weber said Nashville let Vancouver back in the game.
”We did want to clamp down but I think unfortunately we sat back, and that’s not good,” said Weber, who scored his ninth goal of the season. “They had lots of time to change the momentum and it went back in their favour.”
Nashville’s record is 27-17-6. The Predators, who were beaten 3-1 by Calgary on Monday, lost two in a row for the first time since late December.
The Nashville power play lived up to its 27th-place ranking, going 0-5. The Canucks were 0-4 on the power play.
The game easily could have swung Nashville’s way. Leading 1-0, Marcel Goc left go a shot from the slot that Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo stopped with his blocker.
”I didn’t see the puck, I just saw the motion of the player,” said Luongo, who made 26 saves. “I was able to get a pieceof it.
“It was a tight game. The Preds don’t give up much. It was a matter of making the least amount of mistakes.”
Luongo has not lost in regulation in 17 games.
Weber beat Luongo on a play where the Canuck goaltender was scrambling around in his crease. Luongo was down on the ice when Weber fired a high shot that sailed over him.
Burrows tied the game at 10:30 of the third. He corralled a rebound off the backboards and put a backhand past Rinne.
“It was a lucky rebound and got us going,” said Burrows.
That goal came just moments after Rinne made the best save of the night. He was flat on the ice but managed to get his glove up to block a shot from Vancouver’s Mason Raymond.
The game was scoreless after two periods with neither team being able to gain much traction. Long stretches of scrambling hockey was interrupted by bursts of smooth skating and puck movement.
In the first period Rinne had to look sharp on two Jeff Tambellini shots. He kicked out the first shot, then blocked the rebound, which Tambellini shot from between his legs.
In the second period Luongo found himself at the bottom of the heap when defenceman Dan Hamhuis levelled Nashville’s Patric Hornqvist during a goal-mouth scramble. Hornqvist landed on top of Luongo. Kesler grabbed Hornqvist by the sweater and dragged him off. That produced a scrum, but no penalties.
Notes:Edler sat out with back spasms. . …It was Hamhuis’ first game against the Predators since signing as a free agent in Vancouver. …The match was defenceman Shane O’Brien’s first in Vancouver since being traded on Oct. 5.