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Canucks continue to struggle on power play in loss to Predators

Nashville Predators goalie Carter Hutton, left, stops a shot by Vancouver Canucks' Dan Hamhuis during first period NHL hockey action in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 23, 2014

The Canadian Press

  • Vancouver Canucks lose 2-1 to Nashville Predators, snaps two-game winning streak
  • Canucks blow 1-0 lead, cede winning goal on power play in third period
  • First loss without suspended John Tortorella, four games remain in suspension

It was the lowest moment of a woeful year for the Vancouver Canucks power play.

On Thursday night at home, the Canucks had a four-minute five-on-four, first period, no score in the game, the chance to grab a lead and roll through the night to a much-needed win. Defenceman Dan Hamhuis, a defensive specialist who scores only a handful of goals a year and is heading to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, was down low near the Nashville Predators net, floating and poised in the left faceoff circle.

Alex Burrows, also down low on the other side of the net, got it going fast, flinging a puck across the crease to Hamhuis, but it came in hot and Hamhuis couldn't handle it. Twenty second later, same situation, and Burrows got it to Hamhuis, right on the stick, and Hamhuis was wide open but only put a soft shot on net. The third time, again the same but Hamhuis had a better shot, though in this episode the Nashville goalie made a solid save. The fourth time Burrows flung it across and Hamhuis couldn't reach the pass. The fifth pass came from Daniel Sedin and Hamhuis had to reach for it and shot wide. The sixth try, Sedin put it on Hamhuis's stick and Hamhuis flubbed the shot.

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What is Hamhuis doing on the power play? What is Hamhuis doing on the power play stationed down low near the net? These are the mysteries of a Canucks power play that remains among the worst in the National Hockey League, despite a man-advantage that generates the third-most shots on goal of any team. Yet very few pucks go in, and the powerless power play is one of the main reasons the Canucks sit a precarious seventh in the Western Conference rather than somewhere more comfortable higher up the standings.

One reason for the problems, it can be cited, is the lack of previous success of any of the Canucks coaches when it comes to the power play.

This year's Canucks, led by the suspended John Tortorella, has assistants Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulutzan behind the behind. Gulutzan runs the power play. The Canucks are ranked 25th in the NHL, converting 14.7 per cent of the time, while generating the third-most shots at five-on-four.

Consider history:

- In Tortorella and Sullivan's four full seasons in New York, the power play, counting backwards from 2013, was ranked 23rd, 23rd, 18th, and 13th. The past two seasons New York was ranked 27th in shot generation. The best year, 2009-10, they were 19th in shots and converted 18.3 per cent of time.

- In Tampa Bay, Tortorella (and Sullivan in the last season), there was some success, ranking fifth in 2007-08 and converting 19.3 per cent, and ninth in 2006-07 with 18.4 per cent. But of six full seasons, three were in the bottom half of the league (twice in the bottom third). The year Tampa won the Stanley Cup, 2003-04, when the team was the third-highest goal scoring team in the league, the power play was 16th ranked converting 16.2 per cent of the time.

- In Boston, where Sullivan was head coach two seasons, the power play in 2003-04 was 17th ranked converting 16 per cent, and 25th in 2005-06 converting 14.8 per cent.

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- In Dallas, where Gulutzan was head coach the past two seasons, the power play was 18th with 17 per cent conversion in 2013, and dead last in 2011-12, converting 13.5 per cent of the time, and dead last in shots on goal.

On Thursday night, the Canucks' failed four minutes in the first period was followed quickly after by another blanked two minutes, with Hamhuis still out there. And then again in the second, another two minutes, Hamhuis stationed down low near the net, the Canucks were blanked again.

In those eight minutes of five-on-four, the Canucks had seven shots on goal. That equates to 52.5 per 60 minutes – which would rank 12th in the NHL, notably lower than where the Canucks actually are ranked, third with 60.6 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-four time. It's indicative of another, more recent, problem, a declining shot rate, which compounds existing issues.

Late in the third, down 2-1 to the Predators, the Canucks again could not convert on the power play, for the fifth time of the game, and Hamhuis remained on the first unit.

Asked about all this, acting head coach Sullivan was measured on Wednesday after practice.

"There's always a solution," said Sullivan.

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He went on to note: "It's not an easy thing to coach."

"If you're not careful you can get in the way, because you have to allow for your most-talented players to act on their instincts," said Sullivan. "And for me, based on my experience, instinctive play is when they're at their best."

What coaches can do: provide a team a framework on getting in the zone, and setting up so the players have the gist of where everyone will be. Emphasize the importance of putting pucks on net, being tough on the goalie, blocking sight lines, banging at rebounds.

"We have to get better at all those areas," said Sullivan.

In 2010-11, when the Canucks nearly won the Stanley Cup, the team had the league's No. 1 power play. It only began to show cracks the next winter. Last year it fell to 22nd. In the glory days, 2010-11, Daniel Sedin scored 18 of his 41 goals on the power play. Last year, he had three power play goals in 47 games. This year he has four in 51 games.

The offensive personnel is unchanged, though older: the Sedins, and Ryan Kesler. But defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo are no longer around.

"Christian was a pretty key guy," said Sedin in an interview on Wednesday. "He could really move the puck, across the blueline and open up things." There's Alex Edler and Jason Garrison these days, an offensive defenceman, and a big shot. "We have those guys now, it shouldn't be a big issue."

Yet it is. Something – something elusive – is not right. The coaches try everything. Even fourth-line grinder Tom Sestito saw some first-line power play time this month. And on Thursday night, Hamhuis's terrible showing didn't keep Sullivan from sending him back out on the first unit for more attempts, which seemed odd.

If the Canucks are going to challenge in the daunting Pacific Division and the challenging West, they need goals, and goals will have to come on the power play.

How exactly is unknown, since Tortorella doesn't really think it can be practised much.

"It just is [difficult to replicate in practice]," said Tortorella on Jan. 9. "It's not another team playing against you. It's not the pressure of a game situation, to allow your top players to anticipate what the D is going to do."

He talked about developing a "foundation," working on retrieving the puck from the Canucks own end, breaking up the ice, getting in the zone. Studying other teams' penalty-kill tendencies also matters. Tortorella, who loves using video, shows tape of other teams' successful power plays, what works.

"A lot of it comes from a shot on net, and things happen from there."

Then, overall, it is for Tortorella about the word he uses a lot: "mindset."

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