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Canucks’ mediocre power play hindering potential turnaround – Sportsnet.ca

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VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks were so poor defensively in the first three weeks of the season that their power play didn’t matter.

Eight of their first nine losses were by three or more goals, so besides adding some momentum within those games, another goal on special teams probably wasn’t going to change the outcome.

But now that the Canucks have rediscovered their game, outshooting and out-chancing opponents the last four games but winning only once, the power play suddenly matters a lot. And through the first 19 games of 2021, Vancouver’s man-advantage units are operating at roughly two-thirds the output and efficiency they did last season.

Even with a 2-for-6 night in Monday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames – one power-play goal was scored5-on-3, the other in the final second of a penalty – the Canucks rank 20th in the NHL with a power-play conversion rate of 17.4 per cent. They’ve scored 12 times at extra strength.

Through the first 19 games last season, which the Canucks’ power play finished at No. 4, Vancouver had generated 19 goals and was humming along at 25 per cent.

What makes the downgrade this season more curious is that the Canucks are using the same five players on their top unit: Quinn Hughes at the point, Bo Horvat in the bumper, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller on the flanks and Brock Boeser down low.

Coach Travis Green was critical of the unit after Monday’s game, saying: “I didn’t think they were very good tonight. I just didn’t think they were sharp. Passing wasn’t sharp, they were on the outside.”

“Yesterday, I think we were a bit sloppy,” Pettersson said after Tuesday’s practice for the four-game series finale Wednesday against the Flames. “We weren’t making the plays. We weren’t breaking in the puck like we normally do. I think we just have to keep high standards. This year, the power play hasn’t been as good as we want to want it to be, but we’re talking about it before every game and practice, working on it every chance we get.”

Pettersson had 24 power-play points in 69 games last season, one behind Miller and Hughes. So far this year, he has just four.

“We definitely have the talent to get back to where we were last year, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Hughes said. “(But) it’s also harder this year. . . playing a team four times in a row. They’re going to make adjustments and we’re just going to have to do that, too.”

A huge factor for the Canucks has been the disappearance of the second power-play unit, which produced 19 of the team’s 57 extra-strength goals last season. Tanner Pearson’s deflection of Hughes’ point shot on Monday – the goal was initially listed as even-strength but was changed to a power-play goal as a Calgary penalty expired – was the first power-play marker this season outside of the top unit.

MILLER’S TIME AND DEPLOYMENT

The Canucks made a slight change to their No. 1 power play in practice, moving Miller down to the net and Boeser up to the left-wing circle. Those were their positions when Boeser wristed in the tying goal Monday with 30.2 seconds remaining in regulation time and goalie Thatcher Demko on the bench for an extra skater.

Miller is more adept at jamming the front of the net than Boeser, who will pivot out of the goalie’s way to try and deflect shots. Using Boeser, a right shot, on the left side opens another one-timer option although the left-shooting Miller has been effective collecting the puck from Hughes just inside the blue line and attacking “downhill” to the net. But that position includes a lot of playmaking and Miller has had a frustrating number of turnovers while trying to force passes.

Miller’s ice time has been redistributed this season due to his introduction to the Canucks’ penalty-killing unit, which has phased out Loui Eriksson and lost Tyler Motte to an ankle injury. With 10 power plays and nearly 17 minutes of special-teams play on Monday, Miller logged 24:52 of ice time – easily the most by a Vancouver forward this season.

“I did call Millsy in today and talked about his minutes,” Green said Tuesday. “I don’t like them creeping up that much. On the other hand, I did tell him that I liked his penalty killing. You’re lucky if you can find a guy who’s very skilled and can kill penalties, and is hard enough to do it and brave enough. I think he’s a good penalty killer and has done a good job since we added him. I’ll probably keep him on the penalty kill and I might have to cut his ice in other areas once in a while.”

PETTERSSON’S BACK

After a perplexing start to his third NHL season, former Calder Trophy winner Pettersson has 11 points in his last 11 games and again looks fully engaged.

The 22-year-old’s skill has always sparkled, but what helped him become a star at such a young age was his drive without the puck: how relentlessly he worked to retrieve it, how willing he was to battle defensively. That part of Pettersson’s game was noticeably absent for most of January.

“I’ve been trying to skate faster,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been trying to challenge the opponents harder. I think the first couple of games, I didn’t really do that stuff. I was being too stationary. I was trying to make plays while I’m while standing still and (I was) an easy target to play against. So yeah, I’ve been thinking about that lately, and been feeling a lot better.”

So is Green.

“Any top player in the league, you notice them skating,” the coach said. “You notice them moving their feet, wanting the puck, commanding the puck. I don’t think he had his legs under him to start the season. I think he’d probably admit that, that he wasn’t on top of his game. But he does seem to be getting to the level that he played at before.”

INJURY REPORT

Former Flame Travis Hamonic travelled with the Canucks to Calgary for Wednesday’s single road game, an indication he is close to playing after suffering an upper-body injury on Jan. 20. Signed by Vancouver to play with Hughes as the replacement for Chris Tanev, who has had an excellent start with the Flames, Hamonic may have a difficult time dislodging Jordie Benn from the lineup.

After a disappointing first season in Vancouver when he became a regular healthy scratch, Benn has had a stabilizing effect on Hughes and is playing his best hockey as a Canuck. His expected-goals-for percentage of 49.6 is second among Canucks defencemen, and Benn has improved the penalty kill, which has allowed only one goal in 30:22 of short-handed time with the 34-year-old on the ice.

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Auston Matthews won't face Oilers, Alex Galchenyuk demoted – Toronto Sun

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For the second time this season, the Maple Leafs will face Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers without their own top gun, Auston Matthews.

Not good news when Saturday is the first of three games with first place in the North Division at stake. But hold off that panic button, Matthews’ nagging wrist injury is not expected to sideline him more than a game or two and Toronto already beat the Oilers 4-2 without him on the road.

And when Matthews came back last time, he went on that electrifying 16-game points streak/goal rush that helped propel the Leafs to first.

Coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t wait to make a game-time decision, pulling Matthews Saturday morning, while confirming that three other returning injured players are ready. Goalie Jack Campbell, defenceman Jake Muzzin and winger Joe Thornton are a go, with John Tavares going to Matthews’ spot on the first line between Thornton and Mitch Marner.

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The Leafs take on an Edmonton team, who are even hotter than they’ve been of late, jumping Montreal for second place and possibly passing Toronto if they sweep this series in regulation. McDavid and Draisaitl have a combined 74 points, but a couple of Leafs cautioned against overlooking the rest of the Edmonton roster.

“They have a deeper lineup than they get credit for,” defenceman Justin Holl said. “They’ve been rolling lately and everyone on the ice has been dangerous. Even from the back end, Ethan Bear has been hot. It will be a five-man unit for us and we can’t take shifts off against anyone.”

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Holl said the Leafs are well aware their lead in the North isn’t safe and a higher seeding remains a vital team objective after late season letdowns ultimately hurt the team in unfavourable playoff match-ups.

“We’re up by four points, we have a game in hand, but it’s a super-important series and we have to get off to a good start tonight.”

Also Saturday morning, the Leafs swapped a couple of Taxi Squaders with the Marlies, but one of the promoted players was not rookie winger Nick Robertson. Veteran forward Kenny Agostino and defenceman Timothy Liljegren stayed in Alberta after the farm team wrapped up a series in Calgary, while Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Martin Marincin remained in Toronto and will possibly play in the Marlies home opener Monday against the Manitoba Moose.

Galchenyuk, whose 2012 first-round draft star has fallen considerably the past couple of years, went unclaimed while on waivers before the trade with Carolina and has never been in the AHL.

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“Part of our plan is just to get Galchenyuk playing and that would’ve been sooner if the Marlies hadn’t been out West,” Keefe said. “It’s an environment where he can look to find his game, get comfortable in our surroundings and in our systems. He can find his confidence and not be so concerned about his place in the lineup or making mistakes.”

Robertson was among a few Marlies on a near point-a-game pace through eight games, though Keefe would only say the club wanted a closer look at defenceman Liljegren, whom the coach said is not off to a great start, but could do better as a Leaf extra now that he’s played some games.

Campbell has not been in net for a month since a lower body injury, while No. 1 Frederik Andersen is on the trip, but not yet healed from his own lower body injury. As usual, Campbell has oozed positivity around the room the past few days.

“He’s amazing, a great guy on the ice and off,” Holl said. “I was looking over his shoulder on the plane yesterday and he was watching some film. I was laughing, because on every clip he makes a save, he immediately taps someone closest to him. It could be me and I didn’t even do anything on the play, but he gives you a shin tap. It’s fun to play in front of a guy like that.”

lhornby@postmedia.com

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Line changes spark Flames’ spirited offensive effort against Senators – Sportsnet.ca

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Running out of ideas, line combinations and motivators, the Calgary Flames tore a page out of an old playbook to get back on track Saturday afternoon.

Coach Geoff Ward dusted off the lines he used last year to help the team snap a lengthy offensive slump with a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.

How long the trios – or the success – will last is anyone’s guess for a team leading the league in line changes and inconsistency.

But for one day the fan fury and finger-pointing in Calgary will subside thanks to a spirited effort that addressed a long list of issues facing the Flames of late, topped by their inability to score.

Ward had reunited Elias Lindholm with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan late in Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Senators, while also putting Mikael Backlund’s 3M Line back together with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane.

After scoring just eight goals in their last six games, the Flames saw five of their top-six forwards find the net, including Backlund who scored for the first time in 10 outings as part of a three-point outing.

“I think our first three lines are the same as last year’s bubble and there is good chemistry in there with all those lines,” said Mangiapane, whose eighth goal of the month was the first shorthanded tally of his career and the team’s season.

“We were rolling today and you saw it. I know for our line we’re comfortable talking to each other and I think that’s how it should be. We have to just continue building chemistry with those four lines.”

The only top-sixer not to score was Gaudreau, who had two assists, as the top two lines combined for 11 points in a game the visitors led 2-0 less than five minutes in.

Struggling most of the year with their starts, the Flames finished the opening period with a season-high 20 shots on goal and a 3-1 lead they did well to protect the rest of the way.

The solid good start came following a warmup in which captain Mark Giordano could be seen loudly urging on a bunch that has struggled to stay even-keeled through the early parts of a season in which the Flames have been one of the league’s most schizophrenic outfits.

The offensive outburst caps an 11-game run in which the Flames hadn’t scored more than four goals, ranking them 24th in the league in goals per game.

Thus, Ward went old school with the lines.

“We just felt they brought some energy to the game when we put them back together in the last game, so we felt it might give us the start we were looking for today and it certainly did,” said Ward, whose club picked up its second regulation win in its last nine games.

“We talked about it earlier in the season. We’re confident with those lines – we know they work. We feel good with them. We wanted to try and explore something else to see if there’s potentially a better lineup. But we know that’s a good fit, there’s chemistry between those guys having played together for a long period of time. Certainly, they showed it today. Sometimes a little bit of comfort and some old faces is all you need to get things going the other way.”

The timing was right, as line matching isn’t an issue against the league’s youngest squad.

One wonders if this is a long-term solution given the move to put Lindholm on a separate line was made to take pressure off Monahan’s line when the intensity picks up in the playoffs.

These Flames need to get there first.

They took a step in that direction by moving into a fourth-place tie with Montreal with the win.

Aided by the familiarity they built on all last season and through the playoffs, the top two lines were complemented by a third unit centered by Sam Bennett and flanked by Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube.

It was the Flames’ best line in the postseason, and while they didn’t score Saturday Bennett was 71% in the faceoff circle and Lucic added jam by accepting – and promptly winning – a fight with Austin Watson right after the Flames went up 2-0.

The Flames energy got an early boost when Juuso Valimaki celebrated like a schoolboy after opening the scoring with his first of the year. It was only the second of his career, with his only other coming Oct. 17, 2018.

“Honestly, that’s how we’ve got to start every game,” said the young defenceman.

“We talked about it a lot and it has kind of stayed in the talking stage. We haven’t really been able to do it. So to be able to do it will probably give us confidence that we can do it.”

David Rittich returned to form, making 31 saves in his fourth start in five-and-a-half days while Jacob Markstrom has been on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Markstrom is eligible to return to the lineup Sunday, if healthy, potentially opening up options for Monday’s third of four-straight meetings with the Senators.

After being shut out in their initial meeting Thursday, both Tkachuk brothers scored in this one, with Matthew adding an assist. Brady’s goal, as well as those scored by Colin White and Drake Batherson, came on the power play.

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Maple Leafs’ Tavares, Marner reunite on top line with Matthews out vs. Oilers – Sportsnet.ca

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The showdown between the hockey’s most dangerous goal-scorer and its most prolific point-getter has been put on hold until Monday, at the earliest.

Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, will be sidelined with a nagging wrist injury Saturday in Edmonton as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Matthews aggravated his wrist during Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Calgary Flames when he crashed hands-first into the boards. Matthews completed the game, gathering a pair of assists, but coach Sheldon Keefe shielded his top centre from taking faceoffs.

Listed as day-to-day, Matthews missed the team’s full practice Friday and skated with the reserves Saturday morning at Rogers Arena:

“He’s played through some stuff here all year long, and he’s been a complete stud,” Joe Thornton said.

Toronto (15-4-2) has already missed 55 man-games due to injuries this season, and this will mark Matthews’ second absence against the red-hot Oilers, who carry a five-game win streak into the night.

The Leafs will welcome back a trio of healthy players to their lineup, however.

Shutdown defenceman Jake Muzzin (fractured face bone) will don a full cage, and veteran Joe Thornton (lower body) jumps back into the top six.

Beloved backup goalie Jack Campbell (2-0-0) gets his first start since suffering a leg injury on Jan. 24.

“He’s amazing. He was watching some tape [on the plane], and I was laughing because on every clip he makes the save and he tapped someone that’s closest to him,” Justin Holl said, with a smile. “Like, it doesn’t even matter. It could be me, and I didn’t even do anything on the play.”

Matthews’ injury paves the way for a John Tavares–Mitch Marner reunion on the front line.

“We’ve already played a game this season without Auston against the Oilers. Putting John and Mitch together, they’ve got a long history of playing together, and having Joe available today will give our whole group a boost,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

Tavares enjoyed his most productive season, 2018-19, with Marner on his wing, and the elite playmaker will try to help the captain out of an offensive funk that has seen Tavares score one goal in his past 10 outings.

Thornton skated alongside that duo Friday, staying on the ice to take extra reps with Tavares.

“He just wants the puck all the time, and I think that’s a good sign,” Thornton said of his fellow No. 1 draft pick.

“He always wants to distribute and handle the puck, and he’s not afraid of the puck coming to him so I like that. And, off the ice, a real good guy, an easy guy to talk to. And when he opens up, he’s a surprising guy. It’s nice.”

The Maple Leafs assigned Kenny Agostino and Timothy Liljegren to their taxi squad for this five-game western road trip, while newly acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Martin Marincin have been loaned to the AHL Marlies.

Liljegren, 21, has impressed early this season, putting up six points through eight games with the Marlies.

“Regardless of his start,” coach Sheldon Keefe notes, “he’s someone we’ve wanted to get some games.”

Saturday’s projected lines:

Thornton-Tavares-Marner
Barabanov-Kerfoot-Nylander
Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev
Petan-Boyd-Spezza

Rielly-Brodie
Muzzin-Holl
Dermott-Bogosian

Campbell
Hutchinson

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