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Canucks say tighter defensive play is more important that a division title

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Coach Alain Vigneault jokes about it but knows his Vancouver Canucks must play tighter defensively when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week.

The Canucks made a run at the Northwest Division title by posting an NHL-best 20-5-1 record in February and March.

But they're 1-2-1 in April, giving up 14 goals in the first three games before pulling out a 4-1 win Tuesday despite surrendering 47 shots to the Calgary Flames.

"The plan was to tire them out in our own end for two periods, let them take a five-on-three (man advantage), kill it off, get them real tired, they take penalties and then we take it home in the third," Vigneault said with a smile on Wednesday.

"It worked perfectly."

But defence was taken seriously in practice.

Players talked about communicating, playing a north-south game instead of circling for breakout passes and cutting down opponents' time and space in the Vancouver zone.

The Canucks play their final two regular-season games tied with Calgary for first in the Northwest but need help to win the division. The Flames have more victories, the first tie-breaker.

A division title means third seed in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Otherwise, the Canucks face starting on the road against the fourth-place Chicago Blackhawks.

Ryan Johnson said the talk is no longer about where the Canucks will finish.

"It's hard not to get caught up in that (but) the important thing is where's your game going to be come Game 1 (of the playoffs)," he said in an interview. "That's got to be our focus these next two games."

The Canucks play here Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings and face the Colorado Avalanche on the road.

They need help from the Edmonton Oilers who missed the playoffs for the third straight year but have back-to-back games against Calgary starting Friday.

Johnson said the Canucks' recent skid against teams below them in the standings can prepare them for the post-season.

"We went on a run there for a while where we were so successful and playing such a good game that it's good to be humbled a little bit and have to refocus."

Goalie Roberto Luongo, who had his busiest night of the season Tuesday with 46 saves, said finding their game is the Canucks' main goal, not a division title.

"Obviously (winning the division) is out of our hands," said Luongo who faced an NHL-record 76 shots in his first career playoff game in 2007 when Vancouver beat Dallas 5-4 in four overtimes.

"We want to finish off with two wins and we'll see if we can get a little help along the way but first we've got to make sure we get ready and set for next week."

Kyle Wellwood, who has a career-high 18 goals after three non-playoff seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the Canucks need to get back to making simple plays.

"If you make one bad play with the puck and the other team gets it back you might end up having to face 30 seconds in your own end.

"We think we can crack down defensively," aid Wellwood,who's playoff-ready with a world-class shiner courtesy of an elbow from Edmonton defenceman Theo Peckham. "We've still been beating a lot of good teams."

Shane O'Brien, who was caught on the same side of the ice as his defence partner when injury-depleted Colorado scored one of its four goals on Sunday, said communication is the key.

"We just got a little sloppy," O'Brien said. "The boys aren't talking as much as we were. If you read off a guy and communicate, it makes it a lot easier out there."

Another key to playoff success will be more production from the defence.

Mattias Ohlund ended a 25-game goal drought with point shots that produced the winning and insurance goals against Calgary and Vigneault wants more shots on screened netminders.

"You can shoot it as hard as you want from the point but if there are no screens and the goaltenders see it, they will stop it," he said. "We need to do a better job of making other goaltenders' life real hard."

NOTES: Defencemen Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa didn't practice Wednesday ... Vigneault said Mitchell, hobbled blocking a shot Tuesday, was given a maintenance day and Bieksa needed time to deal with a personal matter ... both will play against the Kings.



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