Struggling special teams cost Canucks in homestand finale

Jaromir Jagr recorded an assist on Johnny Gaudreau’s goal as the Calgary Flames beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-2.

VANCOUVER — The best thing about so many empty seats Saturday at Rogers Arena is that there were fewer people to boo the Vancouver Canucks.

The drawback for the Canucks is that they have little chance to fill those empty lower-bowl seats if they play like they did against the Calgary Flames, who won 5-2 despite the Albertans’ conga line to the penalty box. The Flames felt more joy than shame in the box, as Vancouver’s struggling power play went 0-for-7 and surrendered a shorthanded goal to Mark Giordano on a 3-on-1 rush.

The Flames, embarrassed 6-0 by the Ottawa Senators in Calgary on Friday, must have been laughing on the team bus after beating the Canucks. It’s like they played on a dare, taking five minor penalties in the first 15 minutes alone. The Canucks managed only a single shot on goal during 8:49 of power-play time while surrendering their second shorthanded goal of the season – the same number of power-play goals the Canucks have generated through four games.

We’re not sure how many NHL teams the Flames could beat by playing this way, but we suspect they can be counted on one hand.

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Calgary coach Glen Gulutzan praised his penalty-killers, goalie Mike Smith and especially Giordano, but admitted: "We got lucky. You can’t do that. We’re dodging bullets here. We’ve got to get that cleaned up."

Canuck goalie Jacob Markstrom, trying to establish himself as a starter, didn’t look good on any of five shots that beat him, although a couple were deflected.

"I don’t know, it’s just one of those s—ty days," Markstrom summarized. "Terrible timing for it. It was a huge game for us. Not too satisfied with today’s game from my part.

"Five (goals against) is way too many. We’re playing good hockey. But we’re killing the momentum; bad timing to let in goals. It’s not just letting in goals, it’s bad timing. I’ve got to come up with something here. You want to be the difference-maker and today, I just couldn’t get any."

At least accountability is not among the Canucks’ problems.

They went 16:23 at one stage without a shot on goal, and fully squandered the final dregs of positivity they generated by beating the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 in their season-opener seven nights earlier.

The Canucks ended their four-game homestand at 1-2-1 and limp away to Ottawa to open a five-game road trip Tuesday without momentum and injured skaters Alex Edler and Loui Eriksson. One game after Edler sprained his knee badly enough to miss the next 4-6 weeks, Eriksson hurt his knee on his first shift against the Flames when he was run into the net by Tanner Glass.

That was about the only infraction for which the Flames were not penalized.

The Flames did everything they could to lose at even-strength, yet won comfortably. Dougie Hamilton scored twice as Calgary defencemen produced four goals. Including Johnny Gaudreau’s power-play goal, the Flames outscored the Canucks 2-0 on special teams.

Most of the five skaters Vancouver general manager Jim Benning signed as free agents last summer were supposed to bring help to a power play that finished 29th in the National Hockey League last season. The Canucks even added a new (old) power-play coach, repatriating assistant coach Newell Brown to run the unit he orchestrated when the Canucks were one of the NHL’s best teams, instead of one of the worst.

But through four games, the Canucks are 2-for-23 on the power play. Their success rate of 8.7 per cent is just over half as effective as Vancouver’s 14.5-per cent efficiency from last season.

"When you have success on the power play, it has to do with compete-level and winning races," forward-pointman Sam Gagner said. "Skill kind of takes over from there. If we can find a way to get back to basics and make sure we’re winning races, winning puck battles, hopefully the chances will get created from there."

The loss to the Flames was frighteningly familiar to many of the bleak nights of the last two seasons, the damage from which could be seen in all the empty seats — on a Saturday night, one week into the regular season, against a Western Canadian rival. The announced attendance was 17,074, but there were many unoccupied pews.

Among the Canuck newcomers, Gagner has a single assist through four games, key defenceman Michael Del Zotto was on the ice for the first four Calgary goals to extend his personal goals-against streak to eight, goalie Anders Nilsson still hasn’t played (although he should have Saturday), Thomas Vanek has one goal and two points in four games, Alex Burmistrov was scratched after two games, and Patrick Wiercioch is in the minors.

There is plenty of concern regarding the returnees, too. First-liner Bo Horvat scored twice in the season-opener and has nothing in three games since then. Linemate Sven Baertschi was pointless until garbage-time against the Flames, key forward Markus Granlund has zeroes across the board, and defenceman Troy Stecher was unable to delay the immediate onset of a sophomore jinx.

Other than all this, the Canucks are fine. They have three points from four games, all of them at home, and are just behind last season’s 69-point pace.

And now they go on the road.

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