TORONTO – The Vancouver Canucks feel like they’re getting closer to the team they desire to be.
Facing the desperate Toronto Maple Leafs in the middle of a five-game road trip Saturday, there were plenty of chances to break. But the Canucks managed to hang tough and got rewarded with a 5-3 victory thanks to a tiebreaking goal from Mason Raymond in the third period.
“It was a little sloppy out there, but we worked hard,” said forward Ryan Kesler, who scored twice. “We got the goals at the right time and found a way to win. That’s the important thing.
“We found a way to win and that’s what good teams do on the road.”
The victory improved their record to 4-4-1 away from Rogers Arena—inching them closer to their goal of being a team that is above .500 on the road.
After getting off to a bit of a slow start, Roberto Luongo stood tall when it mattered most. He made 16 saves in the final period to give the Canucks a chance to win—something they were able to do when Raymond snuck a soft shot from the top of the circle through J.S. Giguere’s pads at 13:36 of the third period.
“Yeah, I was (surprised it went in),” said Raymond. “There was a few actually earlier in the game when I should’ve taken a shot and I didn’t. That one went in. I’ll take it any way I can get it.”
It will only heighten the sense of panic in Toronto. The Leafs delivered their most solid performance in weeks, but still skated away with a familiar outcome. They have just one victory in their last 12 games.
“(That’s) the best third period we’ve played in two or three weeks,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Then the circumstances of the winning goal weren’t very good, we had an opportunity to get it deep. (Giguere) was great all night, but we needed a stop there and he would be the first to say he had to have that shot.
“We kept pushing, we had some great opportunities. I thought our young guys played really well. But when it mattered Luongo made some big saves and denied us a point or even two.”
Daniel Sedin and Dan Hamhuis also had goals for Vancouver (10-4-2). Fredrik Sjostrom, Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski replied for the Maple Leafs (5-8-3).
It was the most entertaining game of the season at Air Canada Centre. Both teams played with some edge and they took turns trading chances off the rush.
Sjostrom and Kessel put the Maple Leafs ahead 2-0 with goals just over three minutes apart. Sjostrom tipped a shot between Luongo’s legs at 4:12 of the first period before Kessel scored his eighth of the season with a high wrist shot at 7:39.
The Canucks showed no signs of panic.
“I think that comes with the record we have and the people we have in here,” said Daniel Sedin. “Last year we came back in a lot of games from behind. We knew we could do it, we stuck with it and we came through.”
He soon scored a power-play goal from in close—his 10th of the season—before Kesler added two more to quickly make it 3-2 early in the second period.
Toronto was able to get the equalizer when Grabovski beat Luongo high, but the Canucks goalie wouldn’t allow another puck to get past him. Even after watching his team win for the eighth time in nine games, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault was muted in his praise.
“We’re still a work in progress,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things we like and we’ve got some other areas of our game that we know that we need to improve. That’s why you play 82 games, you’ve got to get better every night.”
Wilson has been preaching a similar message without the same results.
One bright spot for the Leafs coach was the play of Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie, who both looked good after getting called up from the American Hockey League on Friday. Expect them to be around when Toronto gets another chance to break out of its funk with Nashville in town on Tuesday.
The Canucks, meanwhile, will pack up their gear and make a trip down the highway to face Buffalo on Monday.
The East has been a kind place for Vancouver, which improved to 5-0-1 against teams from the opposite conference this season. That’s been a trend in recent years (they were 13-5-0 in 2009-10), but Luongo did his best to be diplomatic when asked about the reason behind the success.
“You do the math, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I can’t answer that for you without being cocky.”
Notes:The Canucks scratched Keith Ballard, Peter Schaefer and Ryan Parent … Carl Gunnarsson and Luca Caputi were taken out of Toronto’s lineup to make room for Kadri and Aulie … Kadri played his seventh game in 11 days—each in a different city—and received 18:05 of ice time … Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin played his 433rd consecutive game … Announced attendance was 19,534.