It was never going to be easy.

Buoyed by impressive goaltending, youthful exuberance, and a piping hot powerplay, the Vancouver Canucks were just one shot away from pushing the defending Stanley Cup champions to the brink. Following a missed opportunity to take a stranglehold on the series, the Canucks had their worst showing of the post-season the next night allowing the St. Louis Blues to even up the series at two apiece.

With their commanding lead evaporated, the Canucks will need to regroup and focus on their win conditions in game 5. I have no doubt Jacob Markstrom will continue his MVP ways between the pipes and Vancouver’s young guns in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes will progress and rise to the challenge. The Canucks powerplay is the win condition that needs to be examined as the depth at even-strength isn’t quite there yet to compete with an elite team like St. Louis. For the Canucks to have a chance to win this series, the powerplay needs to be a driving force of the offence.

Have they figured it out?

GM 1 + 2 5/9 8.29 93.19
GM 3 + 4 1/9 5.47 88.29

In games one and two, the Vancouver Canucks were lifted on the tailwinds of a dominant first powerplay unit that converted on five of their nine opportunities. They were creating quality shots at an elite rate with an expected goals-for per 60 of 8.29. That would have been best in the league in the regular season. Clearly, the man-advantage was clicking and the Blues didn’t have an answer. However, games three and four paint an entirely different picture. Vancouver only converted on one of their nine chances and crucially couldn’t find a goal in game four going an abysmal 0-for-7.

In no way was the Canucks’ powerplay expected to continue converting on 55% of their powerplay opportunities, especially when we consider that they were scoring on more than half of their shots on goal. However, one still has to wonder if the powerplay’s fall off in games three and four is simply a result of regression to the mean, or have the Blues also done their homework? Spoilers, it’s a mixture of both.

The Miller-Hughes set-motion

If you had told me that Vancouver’s powerplay would run through the chemistry of JT Miller and Quinn Hughes at the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. Quinn Hughes being a facilitator on the man-advantage comes as no surprise but the decision to put Miller on his strongside along the left half-wall has been Vancouver’s bread and butter through the post-season so far.

We’ve seen Vancouver convert on three different wrinkles of the Miller and Hughes tandem but the foundation of the set-motion has remained constant. The play begins with Miller and the puck on the half-wall scanning for options. If no cross-ice, bumper, or goal line play looks dangerous, the Canucks default to the Miller-Hughes set-motion. Miller passes the puck up to Hughes who then walks the puck towards the centre of the blueline. Because of Hughes’ ability to open his hips and face the net while moving laterally, he is always a threat to shoot so the high penalty killer must move with him to take away the shooting lane.

The Canucks also threaten Elias Pettersson’s lethal one-timer on the right faceoff dot which means that the F2 on the penalty kill is usually shifted over to take away that threat. This is what the Canucks bank on. Because of the two penalty killers shifted over to take away the Pettersson threat and Hughes’ shooting lane, this leaves ample room for Miller to wind up and attack downhill on the left-wing. Hughes will pass back to Miller already in flight and one of the forwards on the penalty kill has to scramble to cover Miller. If they get there in time, Miller likes to drop the puck back to Hughes who can either shoot it himself or if Pettersson is now open, set up that dangerous slapshot of his. Below are three examples of this set-motion with three different outcomes. The first is Miller firing a shot while attacking downhill which leads to chaos and an eventual Pettersson goal. The second is a drop back to Hughes who one-times it on the net with a Bo Horvat deflection. The last clip has the Miller-Hughes duo creating a one-timer for Elias Pettersson which results in a rebound for Brock Boeser.

Too predictable

In game four, Vancouver’s powerplay was overreliant on the Miller-Hughes connection to the point of predictability. Miller was unable to attack downhill with room thanks to a key positioning decision by the Blues. Contrast this picture of the Wild’s penalty-kill formation to the Blues’. There is one huge difference that allows Miller to attack the left-wing with space against the Wild but limits his time and space against the Blues.

The Wild leave a man guarding Vancouver’s net-front presence whereas the Blues leave the net-front presence alone. This means that for the Wild, in order to take away the Pettersson one-timer, the F2 has to cheat to the right-wing, allowing for Miller to have time and space on the left side. Because the Blues have chosen to ignore the net-front player, this frees up their defenceman to takeaway the Pettersson one-timer which then allows the F2 to react to the Hughes to Miller pass and cut underneath the high penalty killer in order to challenge Miller quickly. Notice how for the Blues, their F2 is directly in the middle whereas, for the Wild, their F2 is shifted over to Pettersson.

If we watch the St. Louis clip play out, it’s obvious that they are expecting the Hughes to Miller pass and can quickly take it away while still covering the Pettersson threat.

This has been one of the ways in which St. Louis was effective in shutting down Vancouver’s powerplay in game four. I would like to see the Canucks switch things up to give the Blues a different look, even if it’s just for one powerplay shift. There’s a number of options that Vancouver can do with its personnel such as moving Boeser back to his one-timer spot and having Pettersson quarterback from his half-wall. The Canucks could even try what they were doing earlier in the season and place Pettersson and Boeser on their strong sides so that they can both attack downhill.

Another sequence that I think they could use is something that has already worked once against the Blues this series. The Canucks were midway through a change when the puck was turned over in the neutral zone which meant that half of the second unit was on the ice for the Canucks. Rather than play in their 1-3-1 formation, this Frankenstein unit played in a 3-2 formation. Following the Quinn Hughes break-in, he hands the puck off to Pettersson on the left wall and then crosses paths on his way up to the point. This causes Ryan O’Reilly to respect the pass back up to the point. The key moment happens when Jake Virtanen moves from the bumper position down to the net-front which freed up Tanner Pearson to sneak into the slot just in time for a threaded saucer pass by Pettersson for the goal. It’s an interesting wrinkle on the powerplay that I think could be worth looking into. Imagine Pettersson/Miller/Horvat creeping into the bumper to free up a one-timer. Having a focus towards the middle could also take advantage of the Blues strategy of leaving the net-front undermanned.

Ultimately, the Canucks will live and die by their best players being their best players in this series. When powerplay opportunities come, that means their five best players will be setting foot on the ice and the pressure will be on for them to take advantage. Through varying their plan of attack, the top unit should find the back of the net once again. They are too good to go 0-for-7.