Pure hockey. Detroit at Vancouver, Wednesday night, two of the league's highest-scoring teams, two of the best goaltenders, fast moving, scrappy, fore-checking, teams that "play the right way," to evoke the words of Canucks coach Alain Vigneault from earlier in the day.
There were even some near fights, including an aborted scrap between Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard and Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen after defenceman Alex Edler scored short-handed early in the third to give Vancouver a 4-2 win.
Howard was angry that Hansen's push to score, unfairly shoved the goaltender back into the net, freeing Edler to crack the key goal. The goal stood, quick and decisive retribution for a roughing call on Ryan Kesler that was provoked by some thuggery from Detroit's Niklas Kronwall. The Kronwall-Kesler confrontation itself nearly became a full-on fight, before the refs snuffed it and put Kesler in the box.
Vigneault thought Detroit pushed Hansen into Howard. Howard, who is feeling generally aggrieved of late, insisted it was at least half-purposeful by Hansen, who he said "steamrolled me."
"Them's the breaks," Howard said, sitting in the Wings dressing room, surrounded by reporters, wearing a Wings toque, his very-soft voice a dissonance to his angered tone, a lingering upset after he nearly dropped the gloves for fisticuffs.
"I'm just sick and tired of being run over. It's every single game. You know, some times you can't help it, your D battles in front, things do happen, but I'm getting sick of it."
While a physical game, it was mostly free of penalties as the Canucks extended their relentless ascent back toward the top of the NHL, topping the Red Wings in speedy scrap between two Stanley Cup contenders.
"It was hard fought," Vigneault said after the game.
He noted that Detroit snatched some momentum with about five minutes left in the second, and kept it up in the third, but couldn't catch the Canucks, largely due to fine play by Luongo.
The Wings, Vigneault said, "took it to us pretty hard [but]the goaltender stood his ground, as a great goaltender does."
In the past month, the Canucks have gone on a 12-2-1 run, and with each win, the streak more closely echoes the 18-1-3 stretch from the same time in 2010-11, a glorious run that launched Vancouver to a Presidents' Trophy.
The Wednesday night victory vaulted Vancouver to within one point of Northwest Division-leading Minnesota, and the Canucks have a game in hand on the Wild.
Vancouver will play host to Calgary Friday night and then Edmonton Monday, two lower-ranked teams the Canucks usually beat up on, two Alberta sides that need every point as the season's halfway mark approaches.
The first frame The two teams spent the start of the first feeling each other out, like two prize fighters prodding and poking to suss out small openings to exploit. As the offences attempted to find their gear, both teams' defences gave no quarter.
Kevin Bieksa popped a solid open-ice check on pesky Detroit left winger Tomas Holmstrom near centre ice a couple of minutes into the game, preventing Holmstrom from joining a rush, the type of disruption that hampered both high-scoring sides until …
Bang, bang. Vancouver popped two quick ones, 21 seconds apart. The first popper started when Bieksa neatly sprang a rushing Mason Raymond to a clear run at Detroit's Howard. Raymond deked right, and as defender Ian White clambered in, pulled it back left and snapped a shot, the rebound bouncing right back to Chris Higgins, who buried the puck for his 10th of the year.
The agile Canucks second line wasted no time piling on. Hansen, on the boards in the neutral zone after the draw at centre, slid a perfect pass to a bolting Cody Hodgson, who flew in with a clear look at Howard. Hodgson ripped a slapper past Howard's right side, barely a centimetre to spare.
Detroit responded less than four minutes later, as former Canuck Todd Bertuzzi bashed one in on Roberto Luongo, but Vancouver blasted back when Alex Burrows deftly, barely looking, tipped a Daniel Sedin shot past Howard.
The middle 20 Vancouver was outshot 16-11 in the second, with most of Detroit's peppering coming later in the frame, but the shot count belies the fact the Canucks controlled the period, even if the team yielded the only goal, a notch that closed the two-goal lead to one.
The Canucks, never heralded for any physicality, had a banging good time to control the play, fore-checking, keeping the pressure on at most times, with everyone involved, from Henrik Sedin on the first line to strong efforts by the fourth line. The hustling fourth-liners on Wednesday night included 5-foot-9 Andrew Ebbett, a 28-year-old from Vernon, B.C., signed as a free agent in the summer. Playing in only his sixth game of the year, he had a team-high three shots after two.
The Detroit goal, coming near the end of the second, was the first time the Wings were really able to lay it on Vancouver, an effort almost singlehandedly due to centre Darren Helm's push. His eventual one-timer on a pass from Danny Cleary was tipped in by Drew Miller, to Luongo's high glove side, Miller's seventh of the year.
The third period Detroit came out with far more game than it showed in the second, carrying some momentum from the end of the middle frame. It looked as if the Wings had an ideal chance to tie it, with the power play on Kesler's questionable roughing penalty, but it was Vancouver that turned the tide by making it 4-2 on Edler's sixth of the year, a big one to push the 25-year-old back into the NHL's top quartet of scoring defencemen.
Detroit piled on particularly hard as the minutes ticked away towards 60 and urgency increased. With less than five minutes to go, Luongo made a series of big, big snatches, including his right pads down on the ice for a near goal from Helm, and then a high glove save on a zinger of a backhander centre and Wings leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk.
Though Vancouver was on the whole stronger on Wednesday night, Detroit did outshoot the home team 40-25. In the third it was 16-4 Detroit on shots.
Raymond, who has hit the ice with ferocity after his broken back from the June Cup final healed, paid tribute after the game to Luongo: "He makes those saves look easy."