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Uneven Strength

by Kyle Harland / Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks season might be brand new, but the special teams story is anything but.

If there were three things to sum up the Canucks’ special teams performance last season, they would be fantastic penalty killing, a troublesome power play, and too many penalties taken.

And as a Jack Adams Tropy winner, it didn’t exactly take coach Alain Vigneault a stats package and a panel of experts to figure out that his team needed to take fewer penalties this year. So before the season began, Vigneault stressed that cutting down penalties was a priority for the team. But in Friday night’s game, it didn’t really look like it.

“Yeah, too many penalties again,” said Markus Naslund after the game, almost apologetically. It’s a line he’s had to feed the media far too often, and it was clear he wasn’t proud to say it again. With a new season beginning, hopes were high that the Canucks wouldn’t be frequenting the sin bin as often as last year. But it looks like there’s still some work to do.

Vancouver took nearly twice as many penalties as San Jose Friday night – seven versus four. And while that’s not an exorbitant amount, it’s still problematic for a team that could be potent if they fixed their penalty quota.

 “I think we had over seven minutes short-handed in the first period,” said Naslund. 6:38, to be precise, but out on the ice I can see why it would seem longer. At any rate, that number’s not too good, especially considering that the first period alone was why the Canucks lost. All three San Jose goals were scored in that period, and it’s not a coincidence that the Canucks played a third of that period short-handed.

 Statistically, the Canucks’ penalty killing was perfect. It even stopped a five-on-three for over a minute in the second period. Perhaps that’s not such a big surprise for a team that killed penalties at better than 90% efficiency for a good portion of last season, but come on, do they really have to take so many penalties just to showcase their PK units?

And even though the Canucks technically killed all seven of the Sharks’ power plays, San Jose’s game-winning second goal came at 11:48 into the first period, just three seconds after Kevin Bieksa’s high-sticking double minor expired. So while it looks perfect on paper, it might as well have counted as a power play tally.

 “It’s definitely something that we’ve talked about that we need to improve on,” said Vigneault after the game. “We did a good job again tonight killing them, but we need to spend less time. That would probably permit us to play more five-on-five and maybe score more goals.”

The Canucks even-strength play certainly did pick up after the first period, but it seemed that whenever they gathered any momentum, it would be crushed by a penalty call.

 But the number of penalties the Canucks take might not be so obvious if they could capitalize on the power play. While the Canucks only had four chances with the extra man tonight, they couldn’t put one away, something all too familiar.

“Again, it would have been nice if our power play could have come through with at least one and put a little more pressure on them,” said Brendan Morrison, another tired line for a Canuck.

Last year, the team’s power play woes were no more evident than in the playoffs, where the Canucks went a lowly 4-for-64, scoring at mere 6% rate – meaning it took them 16 power plays to score a single goal. Could they have gone any farther with a respectable 15% rate?

 Hopefully, these are issues that can be resolved soon. It’s nice that the penalty kill is great, but so many penalties eat up valuable five-on-five time. And when the power play isn’t working, even-strength is pretty much all you’ve got.

“We have to smarten up or we’re going to be in for a tough year,” said Naslund.

That may sound depressing, but our good friend Brendan Morrison has some optimistic words to help us sleep better: “The good thing about playing 82 games: You don’t have to wait too long to get back at it.”

I have faith in you, Brendan. It will be all better tomorrow versus Calgary.


450 – Career points for Morrison

33 – the highest Canucks jersey number to play tonight

3 – first period goals given up to the Sharks

4 – hits each for Linden and Cooke

15 – face-offs won by Joe Thornton

It showed some flashes of brilliance, but one goal is just one goal. You can talk all day about some of the glorious chances the Canucks had Friday night, but most of the time they couldn’t finish it off.

It definitely wasn’t the offensive punch the Canucks were hoping for on their opening night.

Shoddy defense was the culprit of the first goal, and defenders were responsible for eight minutes of penalties.

Their penalty killing was good and some good positional playing contributed to the Canucks’ only goal, but it was the few costly errors that stood out tonight.

Great on the penalty kill, no finish on the power play. Sound familiar?

That’s because that was pretty much the special teams report after every game last season.

You can’t complain about the penalty killing, but it sure would be nice to pop in a power play goal every once in a while.
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