With a 14-game road trip surrounding the Olympic break inching closer, the Vancouver Canucks would love to pick up some major momentum in their final three home games prior to that daunting stretch.
Beating the Chicago Blackhawks, however, is a rather tall order.
The Canucks’ quest for a fourth straight win Saturday night will require them to slow down the surging Blackhawks, who can add to their NHL-best 35 victories with a fourth consecutive triumph at GM Place.
No team has played fewer road games than Vancouver (30-18-2), a possible concern as it battles with Colorado for the top spot in the Northwest Division, but it at least seems to be heading into its eight-game, pre-Olympic trip on a high note.
Vancouver routed defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh 6-2 on Saturday, came from behind in the final 20 minutes at Edmonton on Wednesday before winning 3-2 in overtime, then got third-period goals from Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and Kyle Wellwood(notes) in a 4-3 home victory over Dallas on Thursday.
“I thought for two consecutive games that our best period was the third period, when the game’s been on the line,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re happy that our guys got it done in pressure moments.”
The wins over the Penguins and Stars lifted the Canucks to 20-7-1 at GM Place, but they’ve had a few negative memories of the Blackhawks’ recent trips to their home building. Chicago (35-12-4) won games 2 and 5 in last season’s Western Conference semifinals in Vancouver, then closed out the series back home in a wild 7-5 Game 6 victory.
Roberto Luongo(notes), who had a 3.52 goals-against average in the series, made 17 stops when the Blackhawks visited Nov. 22, but a goal from Bryan Bickell(notes) - currently with AHL Rockford - was the difference in Chicago’s 1-0 victory.
Antti Niemi(notes) made 30 stops in that contest, and the Finnish rookie may be making it hard for coach Joel Quenneville to continue giving Cristobal Huet(notes) the bulk of the time between the pipes. Niemi improved to 7-1-1 with a 1.25 GAA away from home by making 19 stops in a 3-1 win at Calgary on Thursday.
Huet - along with the team in front of him - struggled in a 4-1 loss at Ottawa on Tuesday, the Blackhawks’ lone defeat in the first half of their eight-game road trip.
“A really good response across the board,” Quenneville said. “Everybody played hard, played well. We got the start we were looking for. Everyone contributed to today’s game and for Antti, it was a good one for him as well.”
The Blackhawks avoided back-to-back regulation losses for the first time since Oct. 17 and 21, the latter of which Niemi made 28 stops in a 3-2 home defeat to the Canucks - one of only three this season for Niemi.
Niemi has only started consecutive games twice, but his coach hinted it could happen again Saturday.
“We like what we saw (in Calgary) and he’s playing well, (so) it’s tough to take that away,” Quenneville said.
Patrick Kane(notes) has only registered an assist against Vancouver this season, but the Canucks will certainly be wary of the former No. 1 overall pick’s presence. Kane had six goals in the playoff series, concluding with a Game 6 hat trick.
Henrik Sedin(notes), the NHL points leader (71), struggled over the latter half of the series, when he was held to two assists over the final three games after scoring a goal in the first three. He doesn’t have a point against Chicago this season.
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