VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Canucks have become the team Mats Sundin envisioned in December when he signed as the biggest free-agent acquisition in franchise history.
The Canucks lost eight straight in January but now are on a 12-2 tear that’s generating playoff talk in the dressing room.
“You look at the roster, there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be able to play like this on a consistent basis,” said Sundin after scoring the winner in a 3-1 victory Saturday over the San Jose Sharks.
“In my opinion all the ingredients are there to have a successful team so hopefully we can build on this.”
While the Canucks had lost seven straight to San Jose, they wanted to send a message to the Sharks, co-leaders in the tight Western Conference, in case they meet in the playoffs.
Kevin Bieksa, who sports what could be considered the start of a playoff beard, agreed it was a statement game for his fifth-place club.
“We’ve been winning for the last little while but to beat a quality team like San Jose, a team we haven’t beat all season, is huge for us,” said Bieksa whose power-play point shot provided insurance in the third period.
Goalie Roberto Luongo, who made 28 saves and snagged a labelled Jonathan Cheechoo shot while on his stomach with the game still on the line, said the Canucks sought to sow seeds of doubt in San Jose.
“We wanted to send a message just in case that we face these guys in the playoffs and let them know it’s not going to be an easy series.”
Defenceman Alex Edler, with his eighth goal of the season, and Sundin, who ended a 10-game scoring drought, provided a 2-0 lead with goals two minutes 47 seconds apart in the first six minutes.
While Edler’s shot was a blast from the point, Sundin combined with Pavol Demitra to finesse the puck behind goalie Brian Boucher.
“I had my momentum going to the left and it was such a great pass it was kind of an easy goal for me to score,” said Sundin who left Boucher sprawled on the ice.
“We moved the puck well. We had a lot of other chances too.”
Ryan Kesler, the third member of the line whose speed created chances off the rush, said the start was important as the Canucks won their fifth in a row to improve to 34-22-8.
“I thought we came out and really wanted this game,” said Kesler who assisted on both first-period goals.
“We were physical, we were skating well, we were generating offence which we haven’t in the past couple of games against these guys.”
Another key was Luongo’s save on Cheechoo, Kesler said.
“That’s a turning point. They get that and they get momentum and it’s a one-goal game and we’re scrambling.”
Joe Thornton cut the lead to a goal, scoring on the power play, with 2.9 seconds remaining in the second period.
A shot hit Shark defenceman Rob Blake, starting a goalmouth scramble. Defender Ryan Johnson tried to clear the puck but swept it onto Thornton’s stick.
Blake came off favouring his right leg and played only an 18-second shift in the third period. Coach Todd McLellan could not provide more information on the injury other than, “He’s obviously a little bit sore.”
Injuries have hit the Sharks hard as they lost their fourth game in a row for the first time in more than a year to fall to 42-12-10 but remained tied atop the West with Detroit.
They are missing starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who suffered a lower body injury in practice; forwards Marcel Goc, Claude Lemieux, Torrey Mitchell, Jeremy Roenick, and Mike Grier along with newly acquired defenceman Kent Huskins (foot surgery).
“It’s something you deal with all year,” Thornton said. “It’s just part of the game, different guys have to step up and play.”
Boucher, who stopped several screened shots during Vancouver’s second-period power plays, discounted the theory that struggling through injuries makes you stronger.
“If you had a choice to go through it or not you’d choose probably not to because you want to win every night.”
McLellan said the Sharks have to focus only on their game and compete harder in the first 10 minutes.
“Right now it’s about our game and our ability to come through this piece of adversity we’re in,” he said.
“It’s about starts, it’s about getting everyone to pull in the right direction. It’s not watching the standings and seeing who’s there.”
Notes: The Canucks marked the Friday death of Colleen Howe, wife of hockey legend Gordie Howe, with a brief scoreboard video prior to the game … Forward Travis Moen, acquired by the Sharks from the Anaheim Ducks at the trading deadline, made his San Jose debut … Mattias Ohlund drew an assist on the game’s first goal to tie Dennis Kearns and Jyrki Lumme for the all-time points lead among Canuck defencemen with 321.