VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are pulling on the bib overalls and packing the lunchbuckets for a crunch-time drive to the playoffs.
They’ve won their last two games with blue-collar scoring in the dirty areas around the net and have pushed back in more ways than one when challenged physically.
The Canucks, in a three-way tie for sixth in the Western Conference entering Tuesday’s play, will need to continue to show that grit as they play their nine remaining games against Northwest Division rivals.
“You don’t look at teams behind us,” defenceman Willie Mitchell, his lips still swollen after a puck pushed back four upper teeth in a 4-3 win Saturday in Dallas, said after Tuesday’s practice. “We look at teams ahead of us that you can catch. Teams like Calgary, Minnesota and Colorado. We feel we can close in on those teams.
“It’s going to be a tough stretch but we look forward to it because it’s going to be a good opportunity.”
The grind starts Thursday in Edmonton. The Canucks and Oilers piled up 193 minutes in penalties in their last meeting here.
Coach Alain Vigneault says he decides on his lineup on a game-by-game basis but it looks like he’ll be leaning to heavy-grit sandpaper.
“We’re going to ice a lineup that can take care of itself and go in there and play a hard game,” Vigneault said.
Pesky forward Alex Burrows, whose nickname is Burr (as under your saddle) was a little more succinct.
“It’s going to be great (Thursday) night,” he said. “We’ve got Mac in the lineup now and he’s another guy who’s not afraid of tough play.”
Mac is rookie defenceman Nathan McIver, who was called up to play in Monday’s 3-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes where the Canucks scored all their goals on goalmouth rebounds.
Jeff Cowan and Rick Rypien, who fought NHL penalty leader Daniel Carcillo, were inserted into the lineup for more toughness.
Burrows expects more fists to fly before the regular season is over.
“There should be a little bit of that too, but the bottom line is that we want to get the two points but if you’ve got to fight to get it done, we’ll do it.”
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Vancouver to get into a position where they can contend for the post-season.
In January they were battling for the division lead and third seed in the Western Conference. Earlier this month they were ninth in the West.
The Canucks started a season-high four-game win streak Feb. 16 with the fight-filled 4-2 win here over Edmonton. Since then, it’s been lose four, win three, lose two and win two. After Edmonton, it’s the division-leading Minnesota Wild – two points ahead of the Canucks – here on Friday.
All teams the Canucks face are in the top half of the NHL in penalty minutes.
Kevin Bieksa, who rehabbed hard to get back in the lineup after a lascerated calf muscle cost him 46 games, said Vancouver has an identity as a hard-working team and it’s suited for the playoff-like atmosphere of the stretch drive.
“It’s a physical game this time of year,” Bieksa said. “Maybe you see guys throwing hits that don’t usually, guys that are fighting out there that don’t usually. Everyone’s doing everything they can to spark their team.
“We don’t have a so-called heavyweight that fights 25 time a year. It’s spread around here and guys stick up for each other. That’s the best kind of team to have.”
Brendan Morrison, back after missing 38 games with wrist surgery and who had the game-winning goal bounce in off his body as he drove to the net in Dallas, said the Canucks don’t have to score pretty goals to be successful.
“I don’t think our team at times is the most aesthetically pleasing but we find ways to win games,” Morrison said. “We’re a difficult team to play against.”
Trevor Linden, who led the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup final and who convened a players-only meeting after soft losses to the Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix on the last road trip, said Vancouver is well prepared for the run to the post-season.
“We’ve got some huge games coming up the stretch and that’s going to be decisive in where we finish,” said Linden who will turn 38 on April 11 and hopes to still be playing on his birthday.
“It’s hard hockey. It’s a battle. It’ll be good for us the next couple of weeks to be in that type of mode.”