VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Canucks have a new line and a fresh outlook on their playoff prospects after ending a dispiriting losing streak.
Mats Sundin and Ryan Kesler, each with a goal and an assist, and Pavol Demitra, with two assists, were instrumental in Vancouver earning a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night to snap an eight-game skid.
And the mood was upbeat at Thursday’s practice as Vancouver prepared for the young and improved Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
“We had a good game but one game doesn’t make a season so we’ve got to improve off that,” Kesler, a speedy skater who plays with an edge, said of coach Alain Vigneault’s latest combination. “We were a unit of three and we worked off each other.”
Kesler, who has 12 goals this season – most coming in a checking role – relished his new assignment with the Canucks, who began Thursday clinging to the final Western Conference playoff berth.
“It gives me more of a chance offensively so I’m going to run with it,” he said.
Sundin, with three goals since coming back 10 games ago as the biggest free-agent signing in Canuck history, said his line could take some scoring pressure off twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“I think it’s important, not only for our line but for all the players,” said the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain. “All the great teams in this league get production from all four lines.”
Getting Demitra back after missing three games with a groin injury was another key ingredient.
“He’s really experienced and . . . it’s easy to play with two good skaters like that,” said Sundin who is averaging 16 minutes 41 seconds of ice time and was 15-4 on face-offs Tuesday night.
“Mats is finding his hands and his legs,” Vigneault said. “I thought he was better last game and hopefully Mats and Pavol can find a little bit of chemistry there and get something going offensively.”
How long they’ll be together is anybody’s guess as Vigneault likes to tinker with his line combinations.
“I thought their first game together was a good game so we’ll continue that experiment,” he said.
Defenceman Willie Mitchell said he expects the trio to click.
“You’ve got a Hall of Famer, you’ve got a guy who’s arguably one of the best Slovakian players ever to play in this league and a young player with a lot of speed and character,” he said.
However, Mitchell wondered aloud how long they’d last.
“It’s been a little bit of musical chairs for awhile,” he said. “But the coaching staff is trying to find the combination to get Mats feeling comfortable.”
The coaching staff would also feel more comfortable if the Canucks could improve their ability to kill off penalties.
Opponents scored on 12-of-22 power-play situations during the losing streak that included a club-record nine straight at home.
“That’s an area that, ever since I’ve been here, has been very, very good,” Vigneault said of the penalty kill which once flirted with being No. 1 in the league. “It’s been a difference-maker in a lot of our games lately as far as us getting in the losing column.”
Kesler, who chipped the puck ahead to Alex Burrows for his game-winning short-handed goal with 1:22 remaining against Carolina, can see improvement.
“It’s just little things, details, a couple of bad bounces,” he said.
But there’s no better tonic than a victory.
“You don’t downplay wins around here because it’s been awhile,” Mitchell said. “It’s nice to enjoy it but it’s only one win and we need to, as a group, get on a roll.”
Burrows celebrated his goal with a motion that simulated breaking his stick over his knee. But he’s treating the stick with care as the Canucks prepare for Chicago.
“You don’t break a stick that you just scored on,” he said. “The hockey gods are not going to love that.
“I just took care of it and I’ll bring it out Saturday.”
Playing the Hawks, who have beaten Vancouver twice this season, will conclude a four-game homestand for the Canucks who will try to win two straight for the first time since Dec. 17.
Then it’s eight cities in 15 days – one of them being Vancouver where they face the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 15. The road marathon ends against the Habs on Feb. 24.
NOTES: The Canucks’ travels will take them to Toronto on Feb. 21 for Sundin’s first game at the Air Canada Centre since signing with Vancouver. Sundin spent 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs.