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Patchwork defence key to Canucks success against Blues at home game

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The Vancouver Canucks will again be relying on a patchwork blue-line corps to preserve their NHL-leading home record before beginning a monster stretch of road games.

Minor-league call-ups Brad Lukowich and Nolan Baumgartner have helped Vancouver enter Wednesday night's game against the St. Louis Blues with a season-high five-game winning streak.

The Canucks also have a 22-7-1 record at GM Place, good for 45 of a possible 60 points and tops in the league heading into Tuesday's schedule.

Lukowich has averaged 12 minutes of ice time and is plus-six at even strength over eight games while scoring the winner in the third period of Monday's 3-2 win over Buffalo.

Baumgartner has played more than 15 minutes in his two starts and is plus-one since the club's shutdown pairing of Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo were injured.

Aaron Rome, the club's seventh defenceman who has seen his minutes increase significantly, has provided insurance for 20 games.

"That's just a credit to the organization, how deep we are," said Shane O'Brien, a healthy scratch for seven straight games in November but now playing against the opposition's top line.

"It's becoming huge for us. Those guys have stepped in," he said. "They've done a great job and we're just going to continue to get better and hold the fort until the boys get back."

Also missing from Vancouver's top six defencemen is Kevin Bieksa who is rehabbing after two ankle tendons were severed by a skate.

He's not likely to come back before March while Mitchell's return is uncertain. Only Salo, who skated on his own before practice, will be on an eight-game, 18-day pre-Olympic road trip that begins Saturday in Toronto.

Because GM Place is the Olympic hockey venue, the Canucks will also have a 12-day, six game road trip after the Olympians leave town.

"He's coming along and we'll see what happens," coach Alain Vigneault said of the often-injured Salo, who has missed two games because of his groin after being out eight more with eye and knee injuries.

"I'm not sure whether he's going to start in Toronto, maybe Montreal (the second game), we'll have to wait and see."

Mitchell, who was drilled head-first into the end boards by Evgeni Malkin in a Jan. 16 victory over Pittsburgh, has missed four games and is still having concussion-like symptoms, Vigneault said.

That's left O'Brien on the No. 1 defence pairing with Christian Ehrhoff, obtained in the off-season, along with Lukowich from San Jose.

So far, it's working as the newcomers have tried to keep shooters to the outside and make safe outlet passes.

"We're starting to read off each other," O'Brien said of his new defence partner who's more adventurous on offence.

"We talk more and he's such a good skater and makes a good first pass. I just try to keep it simple, stay back for him and let him do his thing."

The Blues, who were eliminated by the Canucks in the first round of last season's Stanley Cup playoffs, have been a challenge for Vancouver this season.

They chased goalie Roberto Luongo in a 6-1 home win Nov. 10 and beat the Canucks 3-1 here Dec. 20 before coughing up a 3-0 lead and losing 4-3 in overtime Dec. 31.

That home defeat was followed by the firing of coach Andy Murray.

Since then they're 5-7 under interim coach Davis Payne who was promoted from AHL Peoria.

St. Louis, which won 2-0 Monday in Calgary to move to within four points of a playoff position, is looking to repeat an earlier sweep of the three Western Canadian clubs.

Alex Burrows, who has a 12-game points streak in which he's scored 13 goals, said Tuesday that the Canucks can't afford to look past the Blues to the lengthy stretch of road games.

"We feel confident that we can win against anyone at home but we've got to have our A game before going on the road," Burrows said.

"They're battling for a playoff spot and we're 1-2 against them this year."

O'Brien said good starts have been the key to winning at home.

"We've had a good stretch here at home but the two points (against St. Louis) are just as important as any," he said.

"We know what we have ahead of us and we're looking forward to the challenge but we're going to take care of business hopefully (Wednesday) night."

NOTES: Murray was the second coach to be fired after a loss to the Canucks ... John Stevens was fired by the Flyers after the Canucks won 3-0 Dec. 3 in Philadelphia ... David Perron scored his first career hat trick in the 6-1 win over Vancouver.



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