It didn't take Patrick Lalime long to shake off the rust -- and some early nerves -- after a long absence from the NHL.
Lalime stopped 34 shots in his season debut to earn his first shutout in almost three years, lifting the Chicago Blackhawks to a 3-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
"I was a little nervous in the beginning but I tried to keep my mind off it," said Lalime, who hadn't played since April after back surgery in early September to repair a herniated disk. "It's been a while since I played a game, but we had some good practices."
Lalime, who also had knee surgery last summer, was 3-1 with a .930 save percentage during a recent conditioning stint with Norfolk of the AHL, and it carried over with Chicago.
He fought off a dangerous bouncing puck early and stuffed Josh Green in tight twice late in the first, before forcing Markus Naslund wide on a dangerous rush and got a toe on Trevor Linden's power-play tip in the third period.
"I felt better as the game went on," Lalime said.
Adrian Aucoin scored the winning goal after a series of Canucks miscues late in the second period, and Radim Vrbata and Martin Havlat added empty-netters in the final minute to seal the Blackhawks' fourth win in five games.
Chicago coach Denis Savard called it the best team effort of the season and Havlat said it was the best defensive performance of the year, something he credited to Lalime's return and long-awaited Blackhawks debut.
"We wanted to give Patty the win and help as much as we can," said Havlat, who played with Lalime in Ottawa. "We did, but they had a couple of great chances too and he was unbelievable. I'm really happy to see him win after almost a year."
It was Chicago's first win in Vancouver since Oct. 4, 2001. The Hawks had dropped eight straight here since then, and 11 of 12 overall against the Canucks, but that didn t keep them from keeping No. 1 goalie Nikolai Khabibulin out of uniform.
After backstopping a shootout win in Calgary Tuesday, Khabibulin watched as Brian Boucher backed up Lalime, who killed off three power plays in the final period.
"He was sound," Savard said. "It's a tough thing to do when you've been out a long time, but he made the sacrifice, he went down to Norfolk and played a couple games and worked in practices down there."
It was Lalime's first win since last March, but his last NHL shutout came two years before that, on March 25, 2004. That was two teams and two trips to the AHL ago, when he was still the starting goalie for the Ottawa Senators.
"I think I still have a lot of good hockey left and I just want to enjoy it and build on that and make the best," Lalime said.
Aucoin scored after Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell passed it right to him at the point after clearing a loose puck from behind Roberto Luongo during a scramble in the crease. Aucoin's shot caught Luongo still lying on the ice, but the goalie appeared to have stopped the puck until his defenseman Kevin Bieksa tipped it at the top of the crease, knocking it up, over and in with 3:46 left in the second.
Luongo, starting for a second straight night and 52nd time in 55 games overall, made 20 saves for the Canucks, who lost in regulation for just the third time since Christmas (13-3-3). Vancouver remains one point behind Calgary, which lost in a shootout to Chicago on Tuesday, atop the Northwest Division.
"It's very unfortunate, very disappointing," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We all expected better from ourselves tonight, we expected better execution, and we just didn't get it from the whole group tonight."< Notes: Both teams played in Alberta on Tuesday night, but the Blackhawks arrived in Vancouver almost three hours later because their game was delayed by Mike Vernon's lengthy retirement ceremony before going to a shootout. ... Vancouver D Alexander Edler was called up from AHL Manitoba and replaced Lukas Krajicek, who was knocked out of Tuesday's game early with a big hit. ... Veteran Chicago RW Peter Bondra was back in the lineup after watching as a healthy scratch Tuesday. The Blackhawks lost forward Jeff Hamilton to a shoulder injury suffered Tuesday, and also placed Michael Holmqvist (stiff back) on injured reserve. They recalled Craig MacDonald and Pierre Parenteau from Norfolk of the AHL, with the latter making his NHL debut.