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Canucks special teams the difference

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
The Pacific Division wasn't too kind to the Vancouver Canucks last season and the San Jose Sharks were a big reason why.

The Canucks were 8-11-1 against the division in 2007-08, but more importantly they were owned by the Sharks who swept the season series winning all four games.

Even though Saturday night's contest doesn't count towards the standings, Vancouver's 3-2 win in San Jose not only increased the Canucks' pre-season record to 3-0-0, but it also sent a strong message to the Sharks that they're in for a battle this season.

In front of 16,721 fans at HP Pavilion in San Jose, the Canucks used a cut-throat special teams attack to drowned the hometown Sharks. Vancouver, which iced a predominately speedy team for their first game in two nights, knew that if they could draw penalties they would be able to expose San Jose's horrid pre-season penalty kill, and that's exactly what they did.

The first goal of the game came courtesy of Pavol Demitra, Vancouver's highly touted off-season acquisition, when he and defenceman Alex Edler worked a give-and-go to perfection. After Mason Raymond used his speed to open things up before shooting the puck in deep, Demitra collected it, fed Edler, who in turn saucered it right back to Demitra, leaving him with an empty net and his first goal in a Canucks uniform.

Vancouver had the 18th ranked powerplay last season at 17.1 per cent and they were accused of being unimaginative and standing still on a regular basis, the opening goal of this game was anything but though and it was a sign of things to come.

The Canucks continued cycling the puck well and playing smart hockey and while down a man in the second frame that helped them establish a 2-0 lead.

With Demitra in the box for holding, sophomore Jannik Hansen stole the puck at centre ice and took it in all alone on a breakaway, he went to the forehand but was denied by Sharks netminder Brian Boucher. A heads up play by last year's American Hockey League regular season and playoff MVP Jason Krog ensured Vancouver didn't leave the play empty handed as he hustled to Hansen's rebound and potted his first goal of the pre-season.

Vancouver was dangerous at even strength throughout the first two periods, but they just didn't have the fire that was evident while playing special teams, further proof of this came 11 minutes after Krog's goal as Hansen scored his first goal.

Matt Pettinger and Kyle Wellwood combined to free up the puck for Hansen in front of the San Jose goal, the 22-year-old demonstrated great poise and patience as he snapped it home for the eventual game-winning goal.

San Jose cut Vancouver's lead to 3-1 midway through the third with Ryane Clowe scoring his first goal, and they made things real interesting with 8.1 seconds remaining in the third period when Sharks captain Patrick Marleau also scored his first goal, but it was too little, too late and the Canucks escaped with a solid road win.

Another bushel of positives arose from this game for Vancouver and that starts with the goaltending of Roberto Luongo. Louie started the game for the Canucks and looked great in two periods of play, he turned aside all 14 San Jose shots.

Luongo has now stopped 27 of 28 shots this pre-season as he appears to be in fine form with the start of the regular season on the horizon.

Canucks prospect Cory Schneider played the third period and he was hammered with 23 shots, allowing two goals. Vancouver was outshot 37-22 on the night.

Another highlight for Vancouver was the play of Raymond and Hansen. Raymond continues to display dizzying speed and his puck possession skills seem to be improving game by game, he also worked well on a line with Demitra and Taylor Pyatt.

Raymond collected an assist on the opening goal of the game, his first point of the pre-season, and he now has three points against the Sharks dating back to last season.

Hansen, who was named the first star of the game, may be starting to pull away with one of the vacant roster positions that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Mike Gillis said could be won by a youngster.

The Danish forward collected his second and third points of the pre-season on the night with a goal and an assist, he recorded five shots on net while playing 20 shifts for just over 13 minutes of ice time, Hansen also blocked two shots and was the catalyst for a lot of offensive movement.

As mentioned, the Sharks forged a late third-period comeback, but overall that was the only blunder on an otherwise clean slate for the Canucks. Although they finished only 2-for-7 on the powerplay, things were happening with the man advantage that weren't last year and it was exciting to see.

The penalty kill was also effective for Vancouver, they held San Jose to just 1-for-8 while down a man. In the third period alone the Canucks were in the sin bin for four minor penalties and they were corroded with shots with 23 flying their way in the period.

Joe Thornton was a Canuck killer last season with three goals and six assists in four games against Vancouver, so holding him off the scoresheet for more than 59 minutes was also a positive. He collected an assist on the Marleau goal that cut Vancouver's lead to 3-2 with 8.1 seconds remaining, other than that he was held in check.

The Canucks now prepare to play the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday evening in California. Vancouver's fourth pre-season game will likely be the debut of the highly anticipated line combination of Steve Bernier with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

0 – Goals allowed by Roberto Luongo against the Sharks

2 – Shorthanded goals scored by the Canucks this pre-season

3 – Canucks who scored their first goals of the pre-season in San Jose

6 – Hits dished out by forward Taylor Pyatt

87.5 – Per cent penalty killing for Vancouver (San Jose was 1-for-8 on the PP)

Vancouver's offense left a little to be desired at times while at full-strength, but on special teams it was great.

The Canucks scored two powerplay goals and added a short-handed marker to light up the scoreboard.

The Canucks played a solid defensive game, their only blunders came in the third period when the Sharks were given a little extra time and space. They made Vancouver pay with two goals late in the game.

Vancouver was 2-for-7 with the man advantage and held San Jose to just 1-for-8 while they were on the powerplay, so special teams for the Canucks was impressive.
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