Vancouver Canucks Clinch Northwest as Chris Higgins' 2 Goals Bury Avalanche

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2012

Roberto Luongo shone in the Canucks' 3-2 OT win vs. the Avalanche
Roberto Luongo shone in the Canucks' 3-2 OT win vs. the AvalancheJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If hockey wins were awarded solely on the basis of need, the Colorado Avalanche would have earned all three available points in their Saturday night home game against the Vancouver Canucks

After finishing last in the Western Conference in 2010-11, this year the Avs were fighting for a playoff spot with six games remaining, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. But with five teams fighting for two positions, every point is critical.

Colorado played that way in the first period, outshooting the Canucks, 17-8, and taking an early 1-0 lead on a power-play goal from rookie sensation Gabriel Landeskog. The Canucks were playing their fourth road game in six nights and had an emotional week dealing with Duncan Keith's elbow to the face of Daniel Sedin. They looked like they were running on fumes.

It may have been a moral victory to get out of that first period down by just one goal. It may have been a positive sign that even though they took eight minutes in penalties, Colorado ended up with 10. That may have been just enough to enable the team to refocus and get back to their game plan.

The Avalanche went up 2-0 midway through the second on another power-play marker, this time from new acquisition Jamie McGinn—his eighth goal in 13 games since being traded from San Jose at the deadline. But the Canucks kept pressing. Roberto Luongo continued to provide strong netminding. Before the second period was out, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins had potted two quick ones to put the game back to even terms.

Going into the third, the stage was set for Colorado to dominate. They were playing at home, better rested, with youthful enthusiasm and they wanted it more. The Canucks had mathematically clinched their Northwest Division title earlier in the day with Calgary's loss to Dallas, and they were also playing with just five defencemen after losing Aaron Rome to a lower-body injury in the first period.

Colorado did outshoot Vancouver, 12-9, in the third, but Luongo stayed strong and the Canucks were able to grab a single point and send the game to overtime.

In the extra frame, Jannik Hansen's forecheck pressure on rookie Tyson Barrie led to a turnover that Hansen was able to relay to a wide-open Chris Higgins, who made no mistake in the slot. Game, set, match—3-2 Canucks.

Despite the injury on Wednesday to leading scorer Daniel Sedin, the Canucks can come home from this road trip with their heads held high. They got better as the trip wore on and grabbed five out of eight points at a time when their opponents needed those points much more. Secondary scorers like Raymond are showing a pulse, and goaltending has been strong from both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider.

Best of all, the team is showing signs of unity and grit that we haven't seen in awhile. Players were sticking up for each other in post-whistle scrums and making the Avs accountable—a trait for which the Canucks have been knocked relentlessly, especially in their Stanley Cup Final series with Boston.

This week, I think we have also seen Henrik Sedin truly blossom into his role as captain. He's been available and accountable, dealing with questions about the team and about his brother Daniel's condition. He also seems to have done what's necessary in the room to get the Canucks to rally in the face of this adversity, and truly start to play for each other.

It looks like the wheels of playoff preparation have started to spin.