Diminutive winger Conor Garland 'owns the puck' for Canucks

Watch as Conor Garland makes no-look pass to Vasily Podkolzin for the Vancouver Canucks goal to make it 4-2 over the Dallas Stars.

VANCOUVER – A dozen games into his National Hockey League season and buzzsaw winger Conor Garland is providing clarity about where he is best suited in the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup: anywhere.

The five-foot-eight dynamo, whose acquisition in July from the Arizona Coyotes instantly sparked debate in Vancouver about with whom he should play, drove the third line in Sunday’s win against the Dallas Stars.

Garland’s attacking angles and dizzying changes of direction while stickhandling make him an unconventional linemate, but he may be that rare player who creates space and offence no matter where he is deployed.

The 25-year-old spent nearly all of the pre-season auditioning on a line with J.T. Miller, and most of October playing with Bo Horvat. But Garland doesn’t seem to need elite linemates to be effective.

On Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks, he’ll skate again with checking centre Jason Dickinson and high-revving rookie Vasily Podkolzin, who beautifully finished a two-on-one with Garland in Sunday’s 6-3 win. Garland’s position isn’t RW, it’s IC.

“He kind of is an independent creator,” coach Travis Green said after Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “It's nice to have a player like that because we've got some skilled guys that I think create a lot on their own, but also a couple guys who probably need someone . . . to get them the puck. But he's a guy that, I think, when he's on his game . . . he can really lift a lineup.”

Garland is second in Canucks scoring with 11 points in 12 games. At even strength, Vancouver has outscored opponents 11-5 with Garland on the ice.

There is a historical comparable to him with the Canucks. Cliff Ronning, also built low to the ground at five-foot-eight, was a stickhandling wizard in the 1990s who amassed 328 points in 366 games in Vancouver playing with wingers as modest as Sergio Momesso and Jim Sandlak.

Like Garland, Ronning darted around the offensive zone with the puck glued to his stick. Ronning was lethal as a power-play playmaker, but not nearly as physical and effective in puck battles as Garland.

“For a small guy, he owns the puck,” Dickinson said of his new linemate. “He doesn't lose too many battles, and if he does, he's working extremely hard to get it back. He wants that puck all night.”

SLEEPLESS IN VANCOUVER: Dickinson, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars the week before the trade for Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, has been at the epicentre of the Canucks’ penalty-killing crisis.

In the last five games, opposition power plays have pulverized the Canucks with nine goals on 18 advantages. Vancouver has surrendered two power-play goals in each of the last four games, yet the Canucks have managed to win two of them due to five-on-five play and Thatcher Demko’s goaltending.

Second among forwards in shorthanded time on ice, Dickinson has been on the ice for seven opposition goals in 22:55 of PK time this season.

“Honestly, I didn't sleep very well after the game on Friday,” Dickinson said, referring to a 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators in which Canuck penalty-killing was 1-for-3. “It killed me because that right there is the difference. If we're able to get those kills, we're looking at a different hockey game.”

The Canucks are last in the NHL with a shorthanded success rate of a ghastly 63.9 per cent.

“It doesn't look like it's instinctual right now,” Dickinson said of the penalty killing. “That starts to happen when you start giving up goals. You start overthinking everything at that point. It's gotten so deep, your instincts feel like they've shut off almost and you're chasing.”

The Canucks offloaded penalty-killer and right-shot faceoff man Jay Beagle in the Garland trade, then saw their shorthanded roster further depleted by off-season surgery to Tyler Motte and long-haul COVID symptoms afflicting Brandon Sutter, another right-handed centre.

If healthy, Motte and Sutter would be on the Canucks’ first-unit penalty kill. Motte is expected to travel with the team on a three-game road trip that starts Thursday in Denver, but Sutter remains out indefinitely.

THE GOOD NEWS: After emerging as the Canucks' starter during the extraordinary pandemic season of 2021, Demko is taking another step this fall as Vancouver’s new No. 1.

He has started 10 of the Canucks’ 12 games, and his solid .918 save percentage doesn't come close to reflecting Demko’s impact given the quality saves he is making and the disaster he is enduring when his team is shorthanded.

After his “scorpion” save Friday against the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin – flat on his stomach, missing not only his stick but his blocker, Demko elevated his skate to deny what looked like a certain goal – the Canuck made a save nearly as amazing on Sunday. Looking beaten on a two-on-one, Demko dived across his goalmouth to somehow get his stick paddle in front of Jamie Benn’s well-placed shot.

“I just try to make as many saves as I can,” Demko said Monday. “You know, the fashion of those saves is unpredictable. But I'm human, too, and it feels good to make a cool save every once in a while for sure.”

Or every night.

Naturalstattrick.com ranks Demko sixth in the NHL with 4.17 goals saved above expectations.

BO PEEPS: Much of Monday’s media debriefing centred around the Canucks’ struggling power play having a potential breakout night on Sunday by going 3-for-6 against Dallas. The outbreak came after players held a power-play meeting Sunday morning and recommitted themselves to being more active and shot-oriented.

“It makes it look pretty good, doesn't it?” Bo Horvat joked of the meeting. “It was a long time coming for that meeting. We just needed to be honest with our group and be honest with ourselves that it wasn't good enough and our team's going to need us to win. Simple as that. I think that meeting definitely opened up eyes, (that) we're willing to play wherever, do whatever and those are the five guys on the ice that are going to do it.”

Green pushed the right buttons by disassembling his top unit for one game before restoring Horvat and quarterback Quinn Hughes to PP1, alongside Miller, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

“We were just happy to be back together, and happy that the coach has faith in us that we're going to be the five guys to make a difference,” Horvat said.

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