VANCOUVER – There is a pathway to freedom for the Vancouver Canucks. It’s lined with Josh Leivos.
Unfortunately, the National Hockey League team has only one Josh Leivo, plucked at clearance prices from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth line. And although he scored Tuesday in his Canucks debut – on his first shot in Vancouver — he didn’t kill penalties.
Neither did anyone else on the Canucks, who allowed the Minnesota Wild power play to go three-for-three as Vancouver lost 3-2 to recede even farther in the standings. The Canucks are on a 1-10-2 free fall.
If they lose in regulation Thursday against the Nashville Predators, who are merely the Western Conference’s best team, their 0-4-1 performance at Rogers Arena will equal Vancouver’s worst five-game homestand since January, 2009. Nearly 10 years.
It feels about that long since the Canucks’ last winning streak.
Of their seven deadly sins – that figure may be low – the worst currently is the way they’re bleeding goals while shorthanded.
Their pre-game penalty-kill ranking of 23rd in the NHL, with 25 power-play goals against in 29 games and a 76.9 per cent kill rate, was misleading. In the last 18 games, they’ve surrendered 21 power-play goals and their success rate has been a ghastly 67.2 per cent.
This nightmare began the night shutdown centre Brandon Sutter left the lineup with a dislocated shoulder when he crashed into the boards against the Wild on Oct. 29. Oddly, that was also the start of the Canucks’ 4-0-2 surge. Since then, however, they’ve won once in 13 games. Eight of the 12 losses, including the first four on this homestand, have been by a single goal.
The return from injury Tuesday of Jay Beagle, another veteran checking centre who specializes in killing penalties, did nothing to help the PK.
"You can’t give up three on the PK," Beagle said. "I thought we played a really good game and we give up three on the PK. We have to find a way, we have to be better. I like to think I’m a big part of that and I need to be better.
"We have a good system. We have a good plan in play to go after them. We’ve just got to make sure that we execute it. For instance, on that five-on-three, I’m a foot off and they put it in the back of our net. So that one’s on me. You can’t miss those reads. Your PK has to be a difference-maker."
In a way, the Canucks’ PK has been a difference-maker. In combination with a spotty power play, special teams have been keeping them from winning.
The Canucks had a terrific third period on Tuesday as they outshot the Wild 14-5 while pressing for a tying goal. At even-strength, they outscored Minnesota 2-0. But the penalty-killing was awful.
The things the Canucks do well aren’t enough to compensate for a penalty kill that essentially puts Vancouver down a goal before games even start.
Minnesota’s power play, which went two-for-two in its 6-2 dismantling of Vancouver in St. Paul two weeks ago, barely broke a sweat at Rogers Arena. It took the Wild just 15 seconds after Michael Del Zotto’s first questionable penalty to tie the game 1-1 at 12:17 of the first period when Matt Dumba’s uncontested point shot was tipped in by Zach Parise.
And just seven seconds after Del Zotto’s second questionable penalty put the Canucks two men short at 15:29 of the second period, Ryan Suter scored from the point on the five-on-three. Del Zotto was still sitting in the penalty box when Jason Zucker whipped in a one-timer from Mikael Granlund’s pass through the Canucks’ "box" to give the Wild its first lead at 16:31.
"The first one I haven’t seen," Del Zotto said of his first-period tripping penalty on Jordan Greenway. "The second one, I thought was a soft call."
With Alex Edler already off for interference, Del Zotto was penalized for cross-checking Parise, who is strong on his skates but not that time.
"I probably make that play 10 times a game," Del Zotto argued. "It’s a battle down low. You give the guy a little shot and he goes down fairly easy. Penalties are going to happen. (But) we didn’t kill one.
"Five-on-five, we’re OK. That’s a really good hockey team over there. But the PK gives up three and power play doesn’t score any. You lose the special-teams battle, more often than not you’re going to lose the game. That’s just the way this league is."
The Canuck power play was shut out on three chance. It hasn’t scored on the homestand and was ranked 21st before the game.
"Typically, you don’t rely on your power play," penalty-killing defenceman Erik Gudbranson said. "It’s not that they’re not good, but you rely more on your PK to get you through tough games, especially against good teams. We’ve got to find a way to figure it out. The PK is not getting the job done; I’m not getting the job done. We win that game if it wasn’t for our penalty kill, so it’s very frustrating."
Goals by Leivo, on a quick release from the slot at 7:02 of the first period, and Tyler Motte had given the desperate Canucks a 2-1 lead on home ice with 25 minutes remaining.
"I don’t think it’s one thing," Edler said of the special teams’ problems. "It might be confidence."
Given the last month, that’s understandable.