It’s one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to a star forward in the NHL: the opposing team hard-matching your line with a Selke trophy winner.
Elias Pettersson got the superstar treatment during Wednesday’s Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues, in that he was harassed and harangued all game long by Ryan O’Reilly and his linemates, David Perron and Zach Sanford. O’Reilly had Pettersson’s number all game and, in this case, his number was zero: the Canucks didn’t get a single shot on goal when Pettersson was on the ice at even strength.
That has to be a concern this series for the Canucks: at 5-on-5 this season, the Blues were the better team, out-scoring their opponents by 30 goals. The Canucks, on the other hand, barely held their own at 5-on-5 this season, scoring 142 goals to their opponents’ 145. If the Blues can throttle the Canucks’ stars at even strength, they would have a major advantage.
Fortunately, the Canucks have another major weapon to bring to bear: the power play.
The Canucks had one of the best power plays in the NHL during the regular season, scoring on 24.2% of their opportunities. Their 57 goals on the power play was tied for second most in the NHL behind only the Edmonton Oilers.
That power play made all the difference in Game 1, quite literally. In a game they won by three goals, the Canucks scored three goals with the man advantage.
It’s an area of their game where the Canucks are extremely self-assured.
“Our whole power play group is really confident right now,” said Brock Boeser. “[When] we get a power play, we feel that we can score each and every time.”
While he shut down Pettersson at 5-on-5, O’Reilly couldn’t do anything about Pettersson’s goal on the power play. As the puck was kicked out of a crowd, the Swedish star torqued his body around to send it into the top corner while crashing sideways to the ice. He nearly had another power play goal later in the same period, sending a bullet ringing off the crossbar on a no-look pass from J.T. Miller.
Pettersson’s ridiculous shot is one reason why the Canucks’ power play has been successful, but if it was the only threat, it could be easily neutralized. That was clear all season, as penalty kills cheated towards Pettersson to take away his devastating one-timer. Fortunately, the Canucks’ power play is like Green Arrow’s quiver: full of trick arrows, any one of which can be the right tool for the job.
Pettersson didn’t even lead the Canucks’ power play in goalscoring during the regular season — in fact, he was third. Leading the way with 12 power play goals was Bo Horvat, who opened the scoring on Wednesday with yet another power play goal.
Horvat’s role on the power play has evolved from the start of the season, moving from a net-front presence to more of a bumper role in the middle, where he can deflect point shots, open up for one-timers, or hunt down rebounds.
So far in the postseason, Horvat and Pettersson each have a pair of power play goals to lead the Canucks, but they’ve had contributions from all five players on their top unit: each has at least one goal.
“For us, we’re all on the same page and I think that’s so important,” said Quinn Hughes, who leads all players in the postseason with five power play points. “Our five-man unit was going to get better and better as the season went on as we figured out what each other was thinking and the chemistry continued to grow.
“I think we’re at a point where we kinda all have our one or two or three plays that we’re doing, so everyone on the ice can react to what’s going to happen. I think everyone on that unit, they want to score, they want to contribute, they want to make a difference.”
As alluded to by Hughes, the Canucks have a series of plays on the power play that are, to a certain extent, predictable. One is a simple, but effective, play by J.T. Miller, where he rotates to the left side of the ice, draws in a defender with his threat to shoot from the top of the faceoff circle, then sends a backhand pass to Hughes, who can either take a point shot through traffic or relay the puck to Pettersson at the right faceoff circle.
You can see that play working to perfection on Horvat’s first goal of the postseason, a deflection on a Hughes point shot from a pass by Miller.
Each player on the Canucks’ power play knows what to expect as Miller takes the puck. Hughes is anticipating the pass and is lined up with Horvat in the slot for the screen or deflection. Pettersson is ready to shoot if Miller is able to sling the pass directly to him instead of relaying it to Hughes. Boeser is looking for the pass down low from Miller, but immediately pivots to the front of the net as the pass goes to Hughes instead.
It’s also hard for a penalty kill to defend, despite its predictability, as there are multiple options available aside from the set play. If a penalty killer overplays the possible pass to the point, that opens up the passing lane to Pettersson for the one-timer. If the defender comes up too high, Boeser is available at the side of the net. If the penalty kill doesn’t respect the possibility of a shot, Miller has proven that he can pick a corner and score by himself — he was second on the Canucks in power play goals this season.
That highlights another unexpected change to the power play as the season progressed: Boeser isn’t in a shooting position anymore.
When Boeser entered the league, his precise and heavy wrist shot was his primary weapon, letting loose on the power play from the left faceoff circle. When Pettersson proved he was lethal from the right side on the power play during his rookie season, it seemed clear where the power play was headed in the future: two snipers on either side, with phenom Quinn Hughes quarterbacking from the point.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Boeser has instead adapted to a netfront role, which has proven to be a surprisingly good use of his ability to get to the right spot at the right time to finish off plays, as well as his strength to battle for position. Taking his place on the left side is the more-mobile Miller, whose playmaking savvy has been a boon in that role.
All that leads to a power play where each player has a clear role to play, which provides a structure within which the Canucks’ creative young players can improvise. Call the power play the 12-bar blues, with each player on the unit capable of taking a solo when the situation calls for it.
That’s not to say the power play is perfect, and the Canucks are humble enough to be aware of where they need improvement.
“The only thing I’d say is we just got to make sure we get clean zone entries and get set up,” said Boeser, diagnosing their biggest issue. “From there, I feel we’re ziipping the puck around pretty well.”
That has definitely been the most prominent flaw with the man advantage. The Canucks can be confident once they’re in their structure in the offensive zone, but they still look tentative and unsure when it comes to gaining the zone. What’s odd is that they so rarely seem to play to their strengths.
Pettersson and Hughes are the Canucks’ two best players when it comes to moving the puck through neutral zone and gaining the blue line with possession of the puck. Instead of playing to that strength, however, the Canucks’ zone entry scheme usually involves Hughes making a drop pass to the likes of Horvat or Miller, while Pettersson is standing still at the blue line.
While the drop pass is much-maligned by Canucks fans, the truth is that it’s a very effective way to gain the zone on the power play, one that is used across the league. The trouble just seems to be to whom the puck is dropped. If, instead, Hughes was receiving drop passes instead of delivering them, or Pettersson was available for a drop pass instead of waiting for his teammates to gain the zone, perhaps they’d have more success.
The other issue is the team’s second power play unit, which has yet to tally a point in the postseason. This is a switch from the regular season, where Adam Gaudette, Tanner Pearson, and Jake Virtanen all contributed to a power play unit that was a little less structured and little more freewheeling, but still successful.
Gaudette, however, has been scratched since Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, where he struggled in a third-line role at even strength. Brandon Sutter has taken his spot on the second power play unit and, as much as Sutter has played well this postseason, he doesn’t bring much to the power play.
Still, when the first power play unit is clicking with confidence, the second unit becomes a bit of a first-world problem.
The power play’s success could mean the difference between winning and losing the Canucks’ first-round series against the Blues and it could also force the Blues to change their gameplan at even strength. If the Canucks keep racking up power play goals, the Blues will have to play with a lot more discipline to avoid taking penalties.