The Vancouver Canucks had been pressing from the start. Last Monday, at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks had something to prove, whether they could truly compete with the best. Attacking waves were fended off by the spectacular play of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford until, during a second power play, defenceman Dan Hamhuis corralled a puck at the point and popped it over to fellow D-man Jason Garrison, whose cannon of a one-timer boomed through, deflecting off the skate of Jannik Hansen and in.
The goal propelled the team to victory and was emblematic of a resurrected weapon in the Canucks' offensive arsenal. This team is not the same as in 2010-11, all finesse and speed and scoring, a year in which Vancouver led the league in goals and had the best power play. But while these Canucks are scrappier, more grinding, the team's power play is suddenly much like the one that helped carry the team to the verge of the Stanley Cup.
This could well be a key element of any success Vancouver might conjure in the first round of the playoffs next week, likely facing San Jose or a rematch against Los Angeles.
The phoenix-like rise of the power play is a considerable turnaround. Since the run to the Cup, the Vancouver power play has ebbed and flowed like the tides on English Bay. Last year, it was among the best for the first half of the season, before falling apart, and failing in the playoff loss against L.A.
This year, it opened reasonably strong, 13-for-68 in the first 15 games, a passable 19.1 per cent. Then the power was sucked out of the man-advantage like space debris engulfed by a black hole. There was a run of 11 games during which the Canucks didn't score a single power-play goal and over the span of 21 games produced 3-for-57, 5.3 per cent, which hurtled the team to the lowest ranks of the league. The Canucks could barely get a shot off, it was so bad.
But in the past 11 games, the power play is back. The Canucks have produced nine goals in 37 chances, a conversion rate of 24.3 per cent, which is the same NHL-best rate Vancouver delivered over the full 2010-11 season.
There are many reasons for the improvement. The Canucks, in their worst woes, studied what worked on the power plays of some of the league's top teams. The team benefited from the trade-deadline acquisition of playmaker Derek Roy. The return of Ryan Kesler, and his right-handed sharp shot, has been crucial, opening up room for the likes of Henrik Sedin. The team is drawing more penalties. And Garrison, a big-ticket free-agent signing last summer, has found his rhythm with his new teammates and his 100-mile-an-hour blasts are a true weapon. Witness Chicago. Marian Hossa almost seemed frightened to be in the path of the Garrison cracker that deflected in to open the scoring.
And, simply, the Canucks are getting more pucks on the net, though still not nearly as many as they once did. Garrison, who grew up in the Vancouver suburb of White Rock, discovered he had a powerful slap shot as a teenager when he was still a forward and, when he switched to defence, worked for hours and hours to hone his accuracy and co-ordination.
Coming to Vancouver from Florida – after 16 goals last year, and nine on the power play – Garrison was slow to find his place as a Canuck and often wasn't even on the first-unit man-advantage in the early going. Now he is a mainstay.
"We're just trying to simply things, you know, make sure we get pucks on net, and crash the net, and screen the goalie, those three things," said Garrison in an interview this week. "It's really about a bounce or two, whether or not it goes in."
A final key for the Canucks has been drawing penalties. At the end of the long slump, Vancouver didn't get a single power play in two of three games. In the hot run of the past 11 games, the Canucks have had four, or five, opportunities in six of the contests.