Early in the National Hockey League season when their power play was awful, the Vancouver Canucks’ penalty-killing helped them win games.
Now that the power play is one of the league’s best, their penalty-killing is making winning almost impossible.
The Canucks outshot the San Jose Sharks 40-32 Thursday and outplayed them at even strength. But the Sharks scored three power-play goals before Kevin Labanc’s winner at 1:53 of overtime gave San Jose a 5-4 win and Vancouver its seventh loss in eight games (1-6-1) since top centre Bo Horvat was injured.
There is lots to debate about the faceoff rule interpretation that penalized Canucks centre Nic Dowd for contacting the puck with his hand and gave the Sharks a two-man advantage late in the second period, which allowed Tomas Hertl to score San Jose’s fourth goal before he set up Lebanc’s winner.
But while the call was rare, the failure of Vancouver’s penalty-killing was not. It yielded two power-play goals in the Montreal Canadiens’ 7-5 win in Vancouver on Tuesday, and during the Canucks’ eight-game nosedive has allowed the opposition to go 11-for-34.
The Canucks’ penalty-killing had slipped to 22nd in the NHL at 78.4 per cent before the Sharks went 3-for-5.
Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s loss.
A TAKE ON JAKE
Canucks winger Jake Virtanen, the 2014 sixth-overall pick who is still trying to establish himself in the NHL, had one of his best games with a goal and assist. He co-led Vancouver with five shots on net and demonstrated several times how his fast, powerful skating, when combined with a commitment to take the puck to the net, can make him a nightmare to defend one-on-one.
Virtanen logged 14:00 of ice time, near his season-high of 14:36, but none of it came in overtime. We’ll never know whether Canucks coach Travis Green, who plays Virtanen in four-on-four situations during games but won’t use him three-on-three, might have given the winger a chance in OT because the Canucks changed forwards only once before Henrik and Daniel Sedin were trapped on a long shift and burned by Labanc.
The Sedins are terrific with the puck and incredibly smart, which is why Green uses them in OT. But their lack of quickness makes them a liability when the other team has the puck in the Canucks’ end. With a chance to clear the puck or at least make a safer play, Henrik lost it to Hertl on the winning goal.
GAUNCE’S GOAL – YES, HE SCORED
It figures that after Brendan Gaunce went 94 NHL games and more than two years without scoring a goal, his embarrassing drought would end when a defenceman who rarely scores, Erik Gudbranson, shoots one in off Gaunce’s shin pad with much of the net open.
Still, Gaunce won’t complain about getting credit for the Canucks’ first goal against the Sharks. The way he has been playing since re-joining the team in November after off-season shoulder surgery, the 23-year-old has deserved to score before now.
The 2012 first-round draft pick, whose hold on NHL employment has seemed tenuous numerous times, has been playing with speed and power in his checking role, generating shots and scoring chances.
Gaunce had 31 shots on goal in his 19 games before Thursday, and many of them have been from excellent shooting positions.
"It’s unbelievable," Gaunce told me last week. "I feel confident, feel like I’m making plays and shooting the puck well. I’m not thinking about it (the goal slump) during games. But when I go home, it’s hard to sleep."
At least he can finally get some rest.
A DOWDY DEBUT
Bad as they are, it’s not Dowd’s possession numbers that are hurting the Canucks most. It’s his penalties.
For the fifth time in six games since the Canucks acquired the fourth-liner from the Los Angeles Kings for minor-leaguer Jordan Subban, Dowd took a penalty. Actually, he took two, the second one being for a faceoff violation when the puck jumped up off the ice and Dowd guided it down with his glove.
The Sharks scored twice when Dowd was in the box.
Of his six penalties with Vancouver, five of them have led to opposition power-play goals. Dowd doesn’t get a minus for sitting in the box when his team is scored on, but he should. His penalties aren’t reflective of energetic or aggressive play that is otherwise helping his team. One was for boarding, but the others have been for hooking, holding, shooting the puck over the glass, and Thursday’s faceoff violation.
Fourth-liners survive in the NHL by working hard and diligently, doing what they’re asked and what else? NOT GETTING SCORED ON. Not hurting their team. Dowd knows this because he was a competent fourth-liner with the Kings. He needs to stop taking penalties. And getting his Corsi-for above 42 per cent with the Canucks would help, too.
JUST SO YOU KNOW
NHL rule 76.4:
Both players facing-off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the face-off. Any attempt by either center to win the face-off by batting the puck with their hand shall result in a minor penalty. This penalty shall be announced as a “Minor Penalty for Delay of Game – Face-off Violation." The two players involved in the actual faceoff… are not permitted to play the puck with their hand without incurring a penalty under this rule until such time as a third player (from either team) has at least touched the puck.