Iain MacIntyre: Radim Vrbata, Canucks tune out the Blues

 

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Canucks' Radim Vrbata, of the Czech Republic, scores past St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 30, 2015, in St. Louis. The Canucks won 4-1.
 
 

Vancouver Canucks' Radim Vrbata, of the Czech Republic, scores past St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 30, 2015, in St. Louis. The Canucks won 4-1.

Photograph by: Jeff Roberson, AP

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ST. LOUIS — Radim Vrbata is not thinking about all the goals he is scoring and creating. He’s the only one.

Vrbata, the best $10 million the Vancouver Canucks have spent in years, helped set up Nick Bonino’s go-ahead goal, then sniped the clincher as his new line led his new team to an impressive 4-1 win here Monday against the St. Louis Blues.

Combined with the Los Angeles Kings’ 4-1 road loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canuck victory nudged Vancouver five points clear in the National Hockey League playoff race with six games remaining.

The next four – daunting road games in Nashville, Chicago and Winnipeg before a potentially-titanic home game Monday against the Kings – are critical to the Canucks’ playoff drive. So, too, is the line of Vrbata, Higgins and Nick Bonino.

Bonino and Higgins are not Henrik and Daniel Sedin. At least, they didn’t look that way until Vrbata started playing with them.

“It helps having Vrbie on your line; he’s just an assassin around the net,” Higgins said Monday. “You give him three opportunities a game and he’s going to put at least one of them in.

“It’s the best time of year to be playing good. We’re happy to be putting some points on the board. Sometimes you play good games and don’t get points. Sometimes you play bad games and get points. It seems like we’re getting a fair amount right now.”

Of both good games and points.

Higgins, who scored only once in 29 games during his winter offensive hibernation, picked up his fourth point in four games when he assisted on Vrbata’s two-on-one goal that made it 3-1 at 7:06 of the third period. Bonino, who had one goal in 23 games earlier in the season, scored his third in six games to break a 1-1 tie at 13:15 of the second period.

Vrbata merely has five goals and 11 points in his last six games.

The Czech winger has 31 goals this season, which wouldn’t have been an outrageous projection for him when he signed his two-year, $10-million-US free agent contract to join the Canucks. What’s both surprising and impressive, however, is that much of his damage has been done without the Sedins as his linemates.

Vrbata chose to sign in Vancouver for the chance to partner the twins, former NHL scoring champions. But he hasn’t much played with them at even-strength since Canuck coach Willie Desjardins moved Vrbata on to another line about six weeks ago in an effort to spread scoring during Vancouver’s February injury crisis.

He has been skating with Higgins and Bonino since Higgins followed Bonino back from injury two weeks ago.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Desjardins said of Vrbata, who has nine goals and 18 points in 15 games in March. “The good thing about Vrbie is he wasn’t upset (about leaving the Sedins). He wanted to come here, he wanted to play with the twins when he came here. But then when I moved him with Bonino, he was totally fine with it, like: ‘This could be good, too.’”

It was better than good against the Blues.

Vrbata rattled a shot between Brian Elliott’s blocker and hip, while Bonino scored from a sharp angle into an unguarded net after the Blues’ goalie turned himself around (and did the Hokey Pokey) on Canuck Kevin Bieksa’s slapshot off the end boards.

“I think the biggest thing is getting the wins now,” Bonino said. “If we can contribute that’s nice. I think we’ve been rewarded (with points) a little bit lately. Higgy and I weren’t for a stretch there, so it’s good now to kind of get rolling.

“It wasn’t horrible to go through. I was happy with how I was playing; the puck just wouldn’t go in. Fifteen games ago, that shot I had tonight wouldn’t have gone in. It would have hit the side of the net. Maybe three games ago.”

Vrbata has scored more goals than any Canuck since Daniel had 41 in 2010-11, the season he won his Art Ross Trophy with 104 points.

“Every goal-scorer, every player who gets points, is streaky,” Vrbata, 33, said. “I do not understand when people say ‘he’s streaky, he gets hot.’ Everybody is like that. If you wouldn’t be streaky, you’d have 82 goals and 82 assists. That doesn’t happen. I think there are lots of players like this.”

Actually, there are very few. Vrbata may be the Canucks’ purest finisher since Markus Naslund scored 163 goals in four seasons before the 2004 NHL lockout.

Vrbata has a small chance to match or eclipse his career-high of 35 goals, scored for the Phoenix Coyotes three years ago, but should set a new mark for points. He needs just three in the Canucks’ final six games to beat the 62 he had in Arizona in 2011-12.

“I don’t know, you don’t want to even think about it too much,” he said. “Same as when you’re not scoring, you don’t want to think about it too much. Kind of just go with it and hope that more shots will end up in the net.”

There seems a good chance of that.

GAME ESSENTIALS

THE DEBRIEF

As they always seem to, the Canucks rose to the challenge of playing an elite team and had one of their best road games of the season. Vancouver never trailed, getting goals from Shawn Matthias, Nick Bonino and red-hot Radim Vrbata before Alex Burrows’ empty-netter clinched it. Eddie Lack stopped 23 of 24 shots and outplayed Blues’ goalie Brian Elliott. It was a terrific launch to the Canucks’ difficult four-game trip.

THE KEY MOMENT

Just 31 seconds after Zbynek Michalek’s screened point shot tied it for the Blues at 12:44 of the second period, Bonino collected a rebound off the boards from Kevin Bieksa’s point shot and scored from a sharp angle into an unguarded net to restore the Canuck lead. Vancouver did an outstanding job defending it the rest of the way, restricting the Blues to just eight third-period shots.

BY THE NUMBERS

Matthias’s breakaway goal was his first in eight games, and gave the Canucks a 1-0 lead for only the ninth time in 32 games. Vancouver is 26-6-2 this season when scoring first ... Lack is 5-0 in his career against St. Louis ... The Canucks are 9-0-2 in their last 11 against the Blues, who haven’t won in regulation against Vancouver in four years ... Bonino’s three goals in the last six games matches his output from the previous 25 … Vrbata has 11 points in six games.

NEXT UP

The Canucks chartered after the game to Nashville, where they play the Central Division-leading Predators on Tuesday. Nashville is 2-0 against Vancouver this season, outscoring the Canucks 8-2, and had won four straight before Predator backup goalie Carter Hutton played and lost 5-2 Sunday to the Calgary Flames. Pekka Rinne, a 41-game winner, will be back in goal against the Canucks. Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins wouldn’t name his starting goalie.

LACK PRACTICE

Lack has said practise is as important as rest. But the Canucks have nine days between scheduled practices, so Lack is trying to use morning skates to stay sharp. “Last year, if I came to morning skates like this, I’d just go for 20 minutes and try to get my legs going a little bit, but maybe not go hard,” he said. “The difference is now I’m going 30 to 35 minutes and I’m going really hard, focusing 100 per cent on everything.”

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Vancouver Canucks' Radim Vrbata, of the Czech Republic, scores past St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 30, 2015, in St. Louis. The Canucks won 4-1.
 

Vancouver Canucks' Radim Vrbata, of the Czech Republic, scores past St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 30, 2015, in St. Louis. The Canucks won 4-1.

Photograph by: Jeff Roberson, AP

 
Vancouver Canucks' Radim Vrbata, of the Czech Republic, scores past St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 30, 2015, in St. Louis. The Canucks won 4-1.
St. Louis Blues’ Jaden Schwartz, right, and Vancouver Canucks’ Luca Sbisa, of Italy, chase after a loose puck.
Vancouver Canucks goalie Eddie Lack, of Sweden, deflects a shot against the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis Blues’ Zbynek Michalek, right, prepares to block a shot from Vancouver Canucks’ Henrik Sedin, left, of Sweden.
St. Louis Blues’ Steve Ott, right, controls the puck as Vancouver Canucks’ Linden Vey watches.
St. Louis Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo, left, and Vancouver Canucks’ Chris Higgins chase after a loose puck.
St. Louis Blues centre Jori Lehtera, left, competes for the puck against Vancouver Canucks defenceman Luca Sbisa.
St. Louis Blues’ Zbynek Michalek, of the Czech Republic, is congratulated by teammates Olli Jokinen, left, of Finland, and David Backes, right, after scoring against the Vancouver Canucks.
St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, right, gets past Vancouver Canucks defenceman Alexander Edler.
Vancouver Canucks’ Bo Horvat, right, controls the puck as St. Louis Blues, from left, Jay Bouwmeester, Brian Elliott and Dmitrij Jaskin, of Russia, defend.
Vancouver Canucks’ Jannik Hansen, of Denmark, controls the puck as St. Louis Blues’ Patrik Berglund, left, of Sweden, defends.
Vancouver Canucks’ Alexander Edler, of Sweden, falls over St. Louis Blues’ Paul Stastny, right, as they chase after a loose puck.
Vancouver Canucks’ Shawn Matthias, top left, scores past St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott as Blues’ T.J. Oshie (74) and Kevin Shattenkirk (22) watch.
Vancouver Canucks’ Alexander Edler, of Sweden, falls over St. Louis Blues’ Paul Stastny, right, as they chase after a loose puck.
Vancouver Canucks centre Shawn Matthias, centre, and right wing Linden Vey, left, celebrate after Matthias scored in second period against St. Louis Blues. At right is Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott watches as a puck shot by Vancouver Canucks' Nick Bonino slips into the net for a goal during the second period. The Canucks won 4-1.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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