Canucks deploy old-school, tight-checking game to shut down Coyotes

Elias Pettersson picks up two assists as the Vancouver Canucks beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-1.

VANCOUVER – Just in time for Brandon Sutter’s return to the lineup, the Vancouver Canucks went old school Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes. They checked.

No, seriously. The wildly entertaining Canucks, whose secret to winning in the National Hockey League this season has been to score five or more goals and let goalie Jacob Markstrom do the rest, played a relatively safe and tedious game against the Coyotes.

And while they didn’t quite out-stifle Arizona at its own game, which makes opposition time and space disappear, Vancouver did post a 3-1 victory at Rogers Arena that was impressive in its unconventionality for the Canucks.

It was encouraging, too, because the Canucks are going to face this style of game more often as they keep up in the playoff race and April inches closer.

They still surrendered 35 shots to the Coyotes and didn’t exactly look like Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils (or Minnesota Wild). Thank God, no one looks like that anymore in the NHL. But it was a solid victory against a difficult opponent who beat the Canucks in all four of their meetings last season.

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We didn’t know the Canucks had this in them. Truthfully, they probably weren’t sure, either.

“We’ve been talking about it since Christmas, the way the games are going to get tighter,” checking centre Jay Beagle, who saw a lot of Clayton Keller’s line, explained.

“This time of year, things tighten up — everyone knows that. You’ve got to be strong in the D-zone and expect to win games 2-1. It’s just the way the league is. Down toward the playoff push, it gets tight defensively, so it’s good to get a win that way.

“This was exactly the kind of game we expected, and we stuck to our structure and executed it well and won a big game.”

The Canucks’ 10th win in 13 games nudged Vancouver within a point of the Coyotes and Calgary Flames atop the hyper-competitive Pacific Division. The Canucks have games in-hand on both teams.

“Every point matters,” winger Tanner Pearson said.

“Especially with how young our team is, and not a whole lot of playoff experience, it is good to see in these close games how guys handle themselves. Obviously, it’s not playoff hockey speed-wise. But it’s getting pretty darn close to it with how close the standings are. You want to (score lots of goals) every game, but sometimes that’s not going to happen. Playing a strong defensive game against a good team in our division is a good step.”

Shutdown defenceman Chris Tanev, who was frequently deployed against Taylor Hall, said: “We were matching pretty hard. It was definitely more of a playoff-style game. We knew they were a very structured team and they have four good lines, so usually you’re not scoring four or five goals against that team the way they play. You have to win 3-2, 2-1 – that type of game.”

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The Canucks have scored five or more goals in 17 of their 48 games, and counted four goals five times. Thursday was just the seventh time they’ve won in 26 games when they didn’t score at least four.

Tyler Myers’ turnover preceded Hall’s setup to Christian Dvorak that made it 1-0 Arizona at 7:59 of the first period. But Vancouver’s struggling power play tied it at 15:01 when Bo Horvat chipped in the rebound from Quinn Hughes’ shot off the post.

Jake Virtanen broke the tie at 15:49 of the second period when third-string Coyotes goalie Adin Hill kicked the Canucks’ centring pass into his own net after excellent work by Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller to keep the puck in at the Arizona blue line.

Pearson scored into an empty net with 45 seconds remaining.

Starting for 16th time in 18 games, Markstrom did his best work early in the third period when the Coyotes were pressing. He made a point-blank save on Jason Demers, and a close-range stop on Conor Garland.

But the Canucks did a decent job of limiting the Coyotes’ Grade-A chances and managing the puck through the neutral zone, where Arizona’s speed and positioning cause problems.

Not surprisingly, Sutter was part of Vancouver’s defensive effort. Normally a matchup, third-line centre, Sutter played wing on the fourth line with Beagle and Tyler Motte in his return to the lineup after missing 25 of the previous 28 games with groin and upper-body problems.

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He finished with 15:33 of ice time.

“Legs were definitely a little heavy the last period, but it felt good to be back,” Sutter said. “It’s just nice to be back with the group.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a fancy game. It never is against that team (because) they’re so sound defensively. We managed to get the lead and hang on. We play them a few more times, so that was a good test for us.”

The Canucks and Coyotes play three times in the final month of the regular season.

Vancouver plays the San Jose Sharks on Saturday before its bye week.

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