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I Watched This Game: Canucks lose special teams battle to the Stars

The Vancouver Canucks' power play came under scrutiny after failing to convert on three opportunities against the Dallas Stars.
The Vancouver Canucks had opportunities to score on the power play against the Dallas Stars but just couldn't capitalize.

At times this season, the Vancouver Canucks’ power play has looked unstoppable. 

Through the first two months of the season, the power play was on fire, scoring 25 goals on 87 opportunities for a 28.7% power play percentage. They had a strong stretch in late January too when they went 10-for-25 — a red-hot 40.0% success rate.

Since then, however, the Canucks’ power play has been dreadful. They’ve gone 8-for-66 in their last 23 games for a 12.1% power play percentage that is only better than that of the Montreal Canadiens in that timeframe and only just barely; the Canadiens’ power play is at 11.9%.

The Canucks’ power play has no business being that bad. They’ve got high-end talent with loads of power play experience and success under their belts in Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser. The trouble is, that’s just four players; a power play needs five.

Another way of looking at the Canucks’ power play struggles over the past two months is that the Canucks have had one of the worst power plays in the NHL since trading away Andrei Kuzmenko.

It’s not even that Kuzmenko was lighting things up on the power play. He had just 3 goals and 4 assists on the power play at the time of his trade to the Calgary Flames. But Kuzmenko did a lot of little thing to help the power play, whether it was distributing the puck from below the goal line, winning the puck back after a shot attempt, or providing a tangible threat to score that opposing penalty kills had to respect.

It’s less that the power play is missing Kuzmenko and more that the Canucks haven’t replaced him with anyone. The Canucks’ power play is missing that fifth guy. 

Elias Lindholm was supposed to slot into the first power play unit but after scoring two power play goals in his first game with the Canucks, he disappeared and now he’s out of the lineup with a mysterious injury.

Pius Suter has been playing in the bumper but he lacks the shot to be a true scoring threat from that position the way someone like Bo Horvat was for the Canucks. As a right-hand shot, Conor Garland isn’t the right fit for the bumper and his shot is barely more threatening than Suter’s in any case.

Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet shot down the idea of Nils Höglander on the first power play unit, citing concerns with how he’s played on the second unit. That doesn’t leave many options left but maybe Vasily Podkolzin, who proved he can shoot on the power play in Abbotsford, deserves an opportunity.

Whatever the solution is, the Canucks need to find it in a hurry. The playoffs are less than a month away and even though the officiating standards tend to change in the postseason, the power play can still be a difference-maker.

It certainly made a difference in the playoff-like game against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, where the Canucks went 0-for-3 and the Stars went 2-for-5, adding an empty-net insurance goal in the 3-1 win.

“At the end of the day, they were able to execute on their special teams better than we were,” said J.T. Miller.

Whether or not the Canucks deserved all of the penalties called on them or deserved to get an extra power play or two themselves, they simply did not execute well enough on the three power plays they were given, managing just four shots on goal.

“We had a couple of looks, but honestly, not enough, not good enough,” said Miller. “Not enough momentum for the group. We're not getting any loose pucks back. I just feel like we're playing slow. They gave us a little different look than the pre-scout suggested today and I just don't think we responded very well. We had a couple of looks but we need to capitalize. We just need one right there going into the third.”

Tocchet suggested that the issue with the power play is that it’s “too mechanical” and needs to be more “organic.”

“Sometimes the powerplay, you've got to get those gritty things. You need three people to the net,” said Tocchet. “Too many set plays and I think sometimes it burns us. We're trying to get guys to understand that we've got to get the puck to the net. There's got to be gritty goals on power plays, it can't be pretty.”

Not to worry, Tocchet: the power play definitely wasn’t pretty when I watched this game.

  • Postgame, I swear that Rick Tocchet called it “a hard-fought wet game.” I don’t know any other way to transcribe what he said. Do I know what a “wet game” is? No. Do I want to know? Also no.
  • Dakota Joshua made his return to the Canucks lineup and was reunited with Conor Garland and Teddy Blueger to bring back the Good Job Boys on the third line. It was an eventful return for Joshua, who tallied a game-high six hits, played a part in the Canucks’ lone goal, and drew a penalty. Heck, he should’ve drawn two penalties but more on that later.
  • With Joshua back, Tocchet completely overhauled the lineup, splitting up J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser for the first time all season. Boeser moved to Elias Pettersson’s line with Nils Höglander and that line looked dangerous. That left J.T. Miller with Arshdeep Bains and Sam Lafferty and that line didn’t look dangerous at all, which kind of makes sense. Those aren’t exactly first-line-caliber linemates for Miller, though he placed the onus entirely on himself.
  • “I don't think we're getting to the inside enough,” said Miller. “I'm not really creating or driving play right now for me, so I need to be better and, as a leader on the team, I hold myself to a higher standard than that. I mean, I feel like I'm one-and-done a lot.”
  • The Stars’ first goal was a controversial one, because what’s a Canucks game without some controversy these days. Before the Stars power play picked the Canucks’ penalty kill apart for a backdoor goal by Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson kept a puck in at the blue line with what appeared to be a blatant high stick. It appeared that way because of how it was.
  • The Canucks challenged the call but the officials declared the puck was at Robertson’s normal shoulder height when his stick touched it. Technically his right shoulder was approximately in line with the puck but the puck was also in line with his visor, which means his right shoulder was shrugged way up because he moved his stick to play the puck. That’s how shoulders work. I don’t understand how a stick can play a puck at head height for a player standing completely straight and not be considered a high stick. Even Seth Rogen thought Robertson's stick was a little too high.
  • The Good Job Boys helped the Canucks respond in the second period, both directly and indirectly. Garland absorbed a crosscheck from Miro Heiskanen, then evaded a double team with a gorgeous spinning backhand pass that found J.T. Miller, who had come directly off the bench for Blueger. Meanwhile, Joshua drove to the net and dragged Matt Duchene with him, giving Miller all kinds of space to step into a one-timer and drill the puck past Jake Oettinger. Garland’s pass and Miller’s shot are what will show up on the highlight reels, but Blueger and Joshua did their part.
  • “That was a hell of an effort,” said Tocchet of Garland’s assist. “But the other thing is Dakota goes to the net. That allows J.T. to get the shot. If Dakota goes somewhere else or around, there’s no goal. That’s what Dak’s valuable. He knows to go through and that clears Millsy. We need more guys that go through so somebody else gets the goal. That’s playoff hockey.”
  • Midway through the third period, Heiskanen skated into Joshua before a puck arrived, causing Joshua to trip over his leg and go dangerously into the boards. It would have been disastrous for Joshua to get injured again so soon after returning and he was understandably hot under the collar with Heiskanen. Meanwhile, Canucks fans were hot under their respective collars because the officials decided that wasn’t worth a penalty. That's a lot of collars that needed an ice bath after this game.
  • “I think I lost my footing,” said Joshua, erring on the side of forgiveness. “I’ll have to go back and look at it again. I know it wasn’t intentional but still, I wasn’t happy.”
  • Faceoffs don’t always make a huge difference in a game but it was hard to ignore their impact in the third period. After the Canucks won 74.1% of the faceoff through the first two periods, the Stars went 14-for-20 in the third period, including a big faceoff win on the power play that led to the game-winning goal. I haven't seen a faceoff switch that significant since Nicolas Cage and John Travolta.
  • The Stars power play basically did exactly what the Canucks used to do to set up Bo Horvat in the bumper. After winning the faceoff, the moved the puck around the outside, getting it down low to Joe Pavelski to set up the Jamie Benn one-timer. J.T. Miller probably should have come across to check Benn but the Stars smartly sent Robertson to the backdoor at the same time as the pass to Benn, forcing Miller to try to take away the cross-crease play. It was perfect power play execution; the Canucks should have been taking notes.
  • The Canucks pressed for the tying goal with Casey DeSmith pulled for the extra attacker, who happened to be Dakota Joshua. It was a well-deserved opportunity, even if the Canucks didn’t look great at 6-on-5. Tocchet was particularly annoyed by the puck battle that preceded the Stars’ 3-1 goal into the empty net.
  • “The six out of five there — that's the one that disappoints me,” said Tocchet. “We have four guys in there and we can't come up with a loose puck. Gotta come up with a loose puck. They had three, we had four. There's a lot of technique and grit and will in there — I didn't see it. I just saw a lot of guys waiting for the puck. I think that's what happens sometimes. That's the one that probably bothered me the most, that we didn't come up with that loose puck.”
  • You know what I could go for right now? A big heaping plate of PDO. Remember when the Canucks were feasting on percentages early in the season and not just winning games but running away with them, without all the stress of these one-goal, coin-flip games? Those were good times. Can we have those back please?