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New-look Canucks still struggling to score in playoffs

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

VANCOUVER -- The veteran players on the Vancouver Canucks talked a lot this season about proving that 2013-14 was a blip, one bad season with an ill-fitting coach that left them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They backed those claims by getting into the playoffs, but a lot of familiar themes have resurfaced. As a result, the Canucks face elimination in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena on Thursday (10 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Vancouver is 2-13 in the playoffs since winning Game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, and the inability to score has been a constant no matter how much else may have changed.

"We're a totally different team," captain Henrik Sedin insisted. "We got young guys coming up and playing well for us. We’re a four-line team. That's the way we’ve been winning this year. So it's not even close to being the same as in the past."

For all the changes under new president Trevor Linden, new general manager Jim Benning and new coach Willie Desjardins, the results so far in these playoffs have felt eerily familiar. Vancouver has scored eight goals in four games against the Flames, but four in the three losses. The Canucks have 24 goals in 13 games during their past three playoff appearances since 2011.

There are nine players from the 2011 team, but the spotlight always shines brightest on Henrik and twin brother Daniel Sedin.

"I don’t like talking about that long a time ago," Henrik said. "I look at this series and we had enough chances to score more than we have. That maybe wasn’t the case [in] those series, but that was a long time ago."

The Canucks' top line, featuring the Sedins with different right wings, was atop the NHL in possession metrics after four games. Henrik led the NHL entering games Wednesday with a plus-49 shot attempt differential (SAT); Daniel was third at plus-40. The Sedin line is winning the even-strength battle against the Flames' top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler, who have three goals and seven points on the power play but have yet to combine for a point at 5-on-5.

But none of that means much unless the Sedins start scoring more than the one goal and one assist each has managed so far.

"Corsi doesn’t win you games," Henrik said, referring to the former name for SAT. "We know that. But we also believe if you play enough games well you are going to score goals sooner or later. We feel good about our game. We’re getting chances."

The Canucks' inability to convert those chances is hard to ignore, not just in this series but during the past three playoffs. As teams have collapsed to the front of their net, the Canucks have been unable, or unwilling, to win enough battles to convert the rebounds and second-chance opportunities that so often define playoff scoring.

"It's tough to get to second chances when shots don’t get to the net," Daniel Sedin said. "Their [defensemen] step up and block it and it's going the other way. It's more about spreading them out so we can get shooting lanes."

That will be the focus of the Canucks' adjustments in Game 5, but it can’t be the only change. As Daniel noted early in this series, the balanced four-line approach implemented in the regular season works only if all four lines are contributing to the attack.

"When we don't have that, we are an average team," he said.

They haven’t had it against the Flames. Second-line center Nick Bonino has two assists; one came on linemate Radim Vrbata’s only goal, into an empty net in Game 2. Vrbata led the Canucks during the regular season with 31 goals.

Not that scoring has been the Canucks' only problem.

With calgary's youth and Vancouver’s perceived experience advantage coming into this series, the Canucks have rarely looked like the more composed team.

In Game 1 it was Vancouver that abandoned its system after Calgary tied the game in the third period, ultimately leading to the Flames getting the winning goal in the final minute. Even in a Game 2 win, Vancouver abandoned its pledge to make life hard on Calgary’s high-minute top-three defensemen Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and TJ Brodie, who haven’t been hit steadily since the first period of Game 1 and instead are finding energy to join the attack at the other end. They have combined for 10 points in four games.

On the road in Game 3, it was the Canucks who struggled to adjust to the Flames' increased forecheck pressure, turning over pucks and getting flustered by the hits that came with it. In Game 4, despite being warned things would be called tighter and knowing two of their top penalty-killers were injured, it was the Canucks who took two early penalties that led to goals. It hasn’t helped that the penalty kill, which was second in the NHL during the regular season at 85.7 percent, is last in the playoffs at 63.6 percent.

"We have taken a few penalties we shouldn’t take, to be honest with you, and in some games that has cost us," Daniel said. "We have to just be smart, stay out of the box, and 5-on-5 we’ll play well. We’re a confident group. We believe what we have done throughout this year has worked, and we’re going to keep doing that."

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