VANCOUVER, B.C. – Mikael Samuelsson thought Ryan Kesler was a good player when they used to face off against each other. Now that they’re both members of the Vancouver Canucks, Samuelsson has a whole new level of respect for his teammate.
Samuelsson scored two goals and Kesler added three assists as the Canucks beat the New York Rangers 4-1 in a rare meeting between the teams at General Motors Place on Tuesday night.
Samuelsson has found early success playing on a line with Kesler. The former Detroit forward is the Canucks’ top scorer with eight goals.
“I like to play (with) good players,” Samuelsson said. “And (Kesler’s)definitely one of them.”
Rick Rypien, with the winning goal, and Henrik Sedin, into an empty net in the final two minutes, also scored for Vancouver as the injury-riddled Canucks posted their third win in four games.
They improved to 9-7-0 before a crowd of 18,818, the 270th consecutive sellout at the rink known as the Garage.
Christopher Higgins replied for the Rangers (9-6-1), who suffered their sixth loss in eight games. Vancouver remained unbeaten in three games against Eastern Conference teams this season.
“We have to play our best to win every game, so that’s what we’re doing,” said Samuelsson, who was a secondary scorer with the Red Wings before signing with the Canucks as a free agent in the off-season.
His insurance goal, on a power play at 14:13 of the third period, put the game out of reach after the Rangers battled back to create a 1-1 goal after trailing since late in the first period.
It was the Rangers’ first visit to Vancouver in almost two years (Jan. 3, 2008) and only the second in almost eight years. The teams have only played each other six times since Jan. 16, 2002.
But an early third-period melee was reminiscent of a Battle of Alberta. Five players – three Canucks and two Rangers – received 10-minute misconducts as a brawl almost ensued near the benches. At one point, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault pulled tough guy Darcy Hordichuk back as he attempted to leave the bench.
It all started when New York’s Marian Gaborik cross-checked Kesler – and was just one of many times Kesler, chosen as the game’s first star, was at the centre of the action.
“We were on the puck the whole night,” said Kesler.
Still, despite being badly outshot and generating only three shots on a four-minute power play late in the second, the Rangers stayed in the game.
But New York defenceman Dan Girardi, one of the players who received a misconduct after grappling with Alex Burrows, said the Rangers could not hold the Canucks offence down after the incident, which invigorated an otherwise lacklustre game.
“That kind of got the game sparked up and got us going but unfortunately they got a couple of goals and got the win,” said Girardi.
Higgins tied the game 1-1 on a power play at 6:24 of the third period. Standing in the slot, he one-timed Brandon Dubinsky’s pass from the side of the net.
The goal ended Vancouver goaltender Andrew Raycroft’s shutout string at 108 minutes and 17 seconds, which spanned three games dating to Friday’s game in Anaheim.
“I like the way we grinded tonight,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella. “It’s a tough team, a patient team. I thought we grinded in the second period. I thought we caught some momentum with the power-play goal.”
But shortly after the melee, Rypien restored Vancouver’s lead just two minutes and 24 seconds after Higgins scored.
“He came off the bench and no one saw him, so I was just waiting for there to be a lane and he made the shot,” Kesler said.
Before then, Raycroft, filling in for injured starter Roberto Luongo, played the role of hero for much of the game as the Canucks struggled to beat Rangers counterpart Henrik Lundqvist.
“He’s been huge for us the last two games,” Kesler said. “He’s really proven himself.”
Raycroft, who is trying to rebuild his career and his confidence after two difficult seasons with weak Toronto and Colorado clubs, made a number of difficult saves, although the Canucks outshot the Rangers 30-23.
But Raycroft wasn’t complaining about his team’s lack of goals.
“I haven’t enjoyed this for a few years,” Raycroft said. “I forget how much fun it is . . . You don’t get down 2-0 or 3-0 in games and it turns into a fire drill and it gets ugly. When you play in these tight games, for a goalie, at least for me, I enjoy it.”
He helped the Canucks claim the win even though seven Canucks sat out with injuries. Veteran defenceman Kevin Bieksa played both on the wing and back on the blue-line at times.
“Last year, we were out of it, but from January to February, we had 10-15 injuries,” said Raycroft. “It was like a concussion every night, so it does happen. But to happen this early is definitely different.”