St. Louis Blues center Philip McRae (38) and Vancouver Canucks center Cody Hodgson (39) fight for control of the puck during first period NHL hockey action at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Thursday, Feb 24, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
VANCOUVER - Following a five-week pointless drought, Manny Malhotra is enjoying an offensive resurgence.
The defensive centre scored the winner Thursday as the Vancouver Canucks held off the St. Louis Blues 3-2 to maintain their hold atop the NHL standings.
Malhotra now has two goals and four assists in his past seven games following the 19-game skid, which lasted from Jan. 2 to Feb. 9.
"It's fun to contribute on the offensive side of things and not just block shots and (do) all the grunt work," said Malhotra, who is in the first of a three-year, US$7.5-million contract he signed in the off-season. "It's confidence. Once you get a couple of points, things start happening for you.
"I just feel our line (Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres) has gotten back to what made us good early on in the year. We're starting to move our feet, get in on forechecks, force turnovers, which is what we're good at."
Malhotra's goal was a textbook example of capitalizing on a strong forecheck.
With Hansen and Torres doing yeoman's work down low, Malhotra won a battle with Alex Pietrangelo behind St. Louis's net, then spun and whipped a low wraparound shot past goaltender Ty Conklin for his eighth goal of the season.
"I think that he's been real good the last while here," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said of Malhotra. "It's been one of our better lines and playing hard at both ends of the rink."
Mikael Samuelsson and Sami Salo also scored and back-up netminder Cory Schneider made 28 saves for Vancouver (39-14-9), which remained one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for top spot in the league. The Canucks are seven points up on Detroit, which is second in the Western Conference.
Pietrangelo and David Backes replied for struggling St. Louis (27-24-9), which lost its third straight following a three-game winning streak. The Blues are 13th in the Western Conference, seven points out of a playoff spot.
"We're playing good hockey, and that's a positive thing we'll take from it," said Pietrangelo. "But the points right now are crucial. Close isn't good enough right now. We've got to make sure we win."
The Canucks have had trouble with St. Louis this season, losing two of their first three meetings, and Thursday was no different. Vancouver squandered a 2-0 lead before Malhotra's third-period goal.
The Blues dominated the second period, scoring twice and hitting the post twice.
Pietrangelo made it 2-1 on a power play at 6:27, converting a perfect cross-ice feed from Andy McDonald. Pietrangelo, a defenceman, has two goals and seven assists in his past six games, while McDonald extended his points streak to six games (four goals, five assists).
Backes struck 74 seconds later following an Aaron Rome turnover, wiring a slapshot over Schneider's glove.
T.J. Oshie hit iron on the following shift, as did Kevin Shattenkirk later in the period.
"I'm not quite sure what happened in the second (period)," said Vigneault. "I guess that's why coaches get ulcers. For whatever reason, we stopped playing."
If not for the strong play of Schneider, the Blues could have run away with the game.
Oshie had two marvellous chances in the crease, the second which looked like a sure goal, but Schneider made a left pad save to keep the score tied.
Schneider wasn't busy in the third period, but held firm on a St. Louis power play that saw Carlo Colaiacovo and Matt D'Agostini test him with slapshots.
The Blues pulled Conklin with 1:45 remaining, to no avail.
"You need a little help, and fortunately I got some," Schneider said of the goalposts. "Backes and (Chris) Stewart and (Patrik) Berglund, they're all big guys. There were a couple times tonight where I couldn't see the puck. They just hit me or went wide or whatever. You've got your work cut out for you against this team."
Despite their troubles in the second period, Vancouver had a strong first period.
Samuelsson got the Canucks on the board midway through the frame, corralling a Henrik Sedin pass with his leg and backhanding the puck through Conklin's legs for his 18th of the season.
Daniel Sedin earned the second assist on the playto give him 79 points this season, two ahead of Tampa's Steven Stamkos for the NHL scoring lead.
Salo, playing his seventh game since recovering from an off-season Achilles injury, scored his first goal of the campaign late in the frame on his patented slap shot, one-timing a Tanner Glass pass behind Conklin.
"Obviously it feels good (to score), and all the hard work and blood and sweat during that long stretch is paying off," Salo said.
NOTES: Victor Oreskovich earned his first point in seven games as a Canuck, assisting on Salo's goal. ... Blues centre Patrik Berglund's seven-game point streak (4-4-8) was halted. ... The Blues have scored at least one power play goal in seven straight games, the first time they've done that since 2005. ... Blues winger BJ Crombeen edged Tanner Glass in a spirited first-period fight. ... Blues defenceman Nikita Nikitin left the game with a lower body injury and did not return. ... The loudest cheer of the night came when the Jumbotron showed a sign that said: "We came all the way from Toronto just to watch a Canadian team win"