“I thought in the third period we saw an elite player – one of the top players in the NHL – bring his game to another level,” said Alain Vigneault. “Thornton made some great plays. That’s why he’s an elite player, that’s why he’s an all-star in our league, and we didn’t have anything to respond with. Some players sometimes they have that capability to do that, and he did that.”
In his career, Thornton’s scored 23 points in 19 games versus the Canucks. He had a goal in the Canucks’ season opener against the Sharks, and he put Monday’s game out of reach with his three quick points. But before Thornton makes the pretty plays that end up with the puck facing Luongo’s derriere, he takes care of one of the fundamentals of hockey: the face-off. And against the Canucks, he’s particularly potent.
On Monday, Thornton went an unheard of 18-for-20 in the face-off circle – a winning percentage of 90. And it was his clean face-off against Henrik Sedin
that started the San Jose goal rush in the third period.
“For a while there we were starting with the puck more, and then Hank lost that one cleanly to Thornton and they scored right away,” said Vigneault. “It’s an area we’re going to work on and we’re going to try to improve.”
The Canucks face-off situation has been dire this year. Coming into Monday’s game, they were last in the league, at 41 percent. The Sharks were first, at over 58 percent, and there’s no way they’d be anywhere near that figure without Thornton. His worst game this year he was a mere 55 percent against Chicago. His other five games he’s been above 69.
The teams’ league standings were mirrored in the game last night, as Vancouver won 42 percent of the draws, with San Jose taking the other 58. Take Thornton out of the equation, and the San Jose players win barely 40 percent of the draws versus Vancouver.
The face-off certainly isn’t the most glorious part of the game. But it plays a big role, determining how much time teams spend chasing the puck, and how much they spend controlling it. That showed Monday night, especially in the third period. Unfortunately, it benefited the Sharks to the tune of three goals.
Of course the third period collapse against can’t be blamed solely on face-offs, but it’s been recognized as enough of a problem that Vigneault has been working on the skill in practices.
Over the course of the season, there’s only been one game that the Canucks have been above 50 percent in the face-off circle, and that was in their infamous 8-2 loss to Philadelphia. Every Canuck player and fan wants to wipe that game clean from their memory, despite the season-high face-off percentage of 53.
However, all is not lost, even if the Canucks can’t improve their luck in the circles. When they beat Calgary on October 6th, they lost 68 percent of the face-offs. Edmonton on October 12th, they lost 70 percent. So it can be done.
But if the Canucks could have had different face-off fate against Joe Thornton and the Sharks on Monday night, it could have been a difference-maker. And if they can start dominating the draws, it puts them one step closer to beating the likes of the Sharks and other Cup contenders.