VANCOUVER – On a scale of one to Oscar Pistorius, the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-3 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues Sunday night was pretty low on the bad news spectrum.
Unless you count their goaltending, which slipped a discernible notch from fabulous to only pretty good — or Alex Edler, who had one of those head-in-a-fog games against the Blues, when he looked like a man trying to snare flies with a butterfly net — the worst that came out of the two lost weekend matches was that the Canucks’ games-in-hand are pretty much gone, and a five-point lead at the top of the Northwest Division is now three.
There is still not a lot to cavil at, at with this team.
Even a butt-ugly second period, during which they were outhustled, outmuscled, outsmarted and outskated by Ken Hitchcock’s plucky Blues, didn’t sink them, and there is a palpable difference in the timbre of their entire game since Ryan Kesler returned to the ice on Friday that, before long, is going to turn into wins.
No one really knew what kind of shape Kesler would be in, coming off wrist and shoulder surgeries and most of a year since he last played anything like a reasonably healthy game.
But from the moment he took his first shift Friday, something in the mood of the team changed. The level of determination, feistiness, fever with which they pursue pucks … all of it.
So when he got buried into the boards, not once but twice Sunday — first, an elbow by Roman Polak that drove his head into the glass behind the Blues’ net, and then a reckless hit from behind by Alex Pietrangelo that pitched him headfirst into the dasher — there was a collective intake of breath in Rogers Arena.
Would he get up? How good was that shoulder? Did he use a wrist there to cushion the hit?
“It’s fine, I’m fine,” the big centre said. “I didn’t feel anything … I mean, I felt [the hits], but the shoulder and wrist felt fine. I know they’re good, I have no doubts in my mind.”
Asked if the Blues had set out to test Kesler specifically, Hitchcock shrugged.
“No, I mean, he’s going to go through the same stuff everybody else goes through,” said the coach, who has watched the Canucks before Kesler’s return and after, and hasn’t failed to notice the transformation.
“There’s a big difference, a big matchup problem now,” he said. “They play on the inside now, they’re not a perimeter team. You can always tell, when so many players look the same, that that’s a good hockey team.
“They’ve got depth to make plays. The Sedins, obviously that’s a helluva line but they’ve got depth now that’s going to be difficult to defend. They seem to come at you with a level of skill, depth-wise, that’s probably close to where Chicago’s at.
“Their first nine forwards, it’s a taxing game playing them.”
The game was all about the third period for the Canucks, who had been flummoxed by the Blues’ speed and defensive commitment, and could barely get the puck over the St. Louis blueline for most of two periods.
But in the third, there was that three-minute stretch of feeding frenzy when two shifts’ worth of Canucks outnumbered the Blues five to five and had the visitors’ eyeballs spinning with puck movement and pressure and physical dominance — but alas, no goals.
And almost immediately after their blitz came up empty, the Blues tied (Andy McDonald) the game then took the lead (Patrik Berglund) and it was looking like a second straight blown-lead loss.
Then came the two-pronged assault on Kesler, resulting in a pair of minor penalties.
Either hit, when concussion fever was running high last season, would have been up for review by Sheriff Shanahan, but referees Chris Rooney and Brian Pochmara appeared to see nothing untoward in them, so it must have been our imagination that one looked like a dangerous head shot and the other like a fairly brutal hit from behind.
The Canucks came to life on the power play, though they couldn’t get the equalizer until another penalty, a holding call on Ian Cole that led to Raymond converting a blocked Dan Hamhuis shot that bounced cross-ice to him, with most of an open net.
“Last 10 minutes of the first and all of the second we played great, we got a little bit of a push to start the third, and then they got the momentum off those power plays, and we started getting a little worn down killing penalties,” Hitchcock said.
“I don’t think that was a penalty on Coley, the one they scored on, but .. it’s a heck of a road trip,” he said, his team having won in Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver to improve to 9-5-1.
“We’re learning. We ran on last year’s energy, thought we were great, and then we hit the wall, and now we’re rebootin’ it. We’ve got nice potential, but we’re still on the learning curve.
“We just needed to get stabilized. Now, we look like we’re getting back to the way we need to play to win hockey games. The team that played here on the road looks awful familiar to the team that played last year.”