VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Vancouver Canucks are about to find out just how much progress they have made lately.
The Canucks (28-30-7) will host the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (42-16-8) at Rogers Arena on Saturday night. A good showing will help the Canucks show that a decent run -- on which they have gained six of a possible eight points -- has been no fluke.
"We all know how good Pittsburgh is, how much firepower they have and how good they have been playing of late," said Vancouver center Bo Horvat. "We have been getting points in these last four games. It gives our group some confidence going into it."
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The Canucks are 2-0-2 in the four-game span. They suffered overtime losses at home to the New York Islanders and Montreal after winning on the road in Anaheim and Los Angeles.
Horvat, Vancouver's leading scorer, has six points in the last five games. He will be looked upon to provide both an offensive spark and strong defense against a Pens squad that boasts not only superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but scoring prowess across all four lines.
Sven Baertschi, Horvat's regular linemate, has also stood out -- after coming back from a concussion. Baertschi has three goals and four points altogether in the past five outings. The success is impressive considering that Horvat and Baertschi lost their regular linemate Alex Burrows after he was traded to Ottawa near the deadline and have endured a rotation of replacements since then.
Reid Boucher, who is on his third NHL team this season after previously playing for New Jersey and Nashville, is their latest linemate, after Nikolay Goldobin was sidelined with the flu against the Islanders. However, Boucher, a former junior star turned plugger, scored against the Isles and now has two goals in five games.
Horvat indicated that he, Baertschi and Boucher developed some chemistry against the Islanders.
"We felt good," said Horvat. "We were generating offense. It seemed like we were in their end for the majority of the game, which was a good thing. Bush and Bart played great. If we can keep playing like that and keep getting chances, it's going to be good for our line."
What's good for their line could be good for the Canucks as a whole. The Canucks have stepped up a rebuilding effort after shipping Burrows and fellow veteran winger Jannik Hansen out of town, but are still within reach of a Western Conference wild-card berth.
They have gained proximity to a post-season berth even though veteran center Brandon Sutter, who was acquired from the Penguins two summers ago and is widely believed to be playing with an undisclosed injury, has only five points in his past 20 games. During the same span, twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the team's perennial top scorers, have just four goals combined while toiling with various linemates.
Vancouver's lines will be revised again Saturday as forward Alex Grenier draws in after being recalled from Utica of the American Hockey League on Friday. He could replace Alex Biega, usually a defenseman, who played on the wing against the Islanders because Goldobin was out and the Canucks were short a player up front. Forward Brendan Gaunce is expected to miss the game with a shoulder injury after playing well lately.
But defenseman Troy Stecher, whose last-minute goal against the Islanders forced overtime and earned the Canucks a point, still expects the Canucks to put in a good showing against the Penguins.
"We're getting points -- (in) four consecutive games now," said Troy Stecher. "We have to stay positive and continue to fight."
The Penguins might put up less of a fight than usual, because they will be playing their second of back-to-back road games. They will also be missing heavyweight winger Tom Sestito, a former Canuck, who will sit out the second of a four-game suspension for boarding Winnipeg's Toby Enstrom on Tuesday night. But the Penguins are riding a four-game win streak following Friday's 3-2 shootout victory in Edmonton.
Nick Bonino, who was dealt to the Penguins for Sutter, is on fire as he returns to face his former club. He has four goals in his past two games and six points in the past four outings.
The Canucks will also have to contend with another one who got away -- defenseman Justin Schultz. The Kelowna, B.C., native chose to sign with Edmonton rather than Vancouver as a free agent out of college. Schultz struggled defensively in his four seasons with the Oilers, but he has been a stalwart since being traded to Pittsburgh last season.
Schultz, who was initially coveted as a prospect due to his offensive talent, has been on the ice for 29 more goals for than against this season -- and is having a career year scoring-wise. He has been on a tear lately, producing seven points in his current four-game streak, and now has 46 points -- 13 more than in his best campaign with the Oilers.
"I, obviously, didn't play well at all when I was (with Edmonton)," Schultz told Postmedia this week. "Especially near the end. I needed a change in environment."
According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, he is much different now than he was the Oilers.
"I give Justin so much credit for the overall development of his game," Sullivan told Postmedia. "He's really made a commitment to play the game at both ends of the rink."
As if the club's scoring prowess is not enough, the Penguins are also getting exceptional goaltending. Matt Murray is expected to start against the Canucks after Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped the shootout win in Edmonton.
"We believe we have the best goaltending tandem in the league," Sullivan told reporters after the win over the Oilers. "These guys are both No. 1 goalies."