TAMPA, Fla. — When you kill penalties against the Tampa Bay Lightning, you’re liable to look a bit silly on occasion.
The Lightning with the man advantage are precision incarnate. They boast one of the most ruthless distributors from the half-wall in the history of the sport opposite the single most accurate shooter of the last decade, with Victor Hedman up top and the NHL’s smartest bumper guy (now that Patrice Bergeron has retired) in Brayden Point.
Tampa’s least heralded “PP1” player is Nick Paul, who has three power-play goals in five games since inheriting the net-front spot on the unit from free agent departure Alex Killorn. It’s a testament to Tampa Bay’s power-play efficiency that Paul’s three goals with the man advantage have been scored from an average distance of 7.5 feet.
On Thursday night, the reeling Lightning — losers of three consecutive divisional games — carved up the Vancouver Canucks’ suddenly solid penalty kill, converting on two of their three opportunities in a one-goal victory. If the result was suboptimal, the truth is that Vancouver’s penalty kill was fine on form, good even. The club just had two key breakdowns at inopportune moments, the Lightning punished both of those mistakes, and on both of those key breakdowns, Canucks defender Tyler Myers was directly culpable.
The first breakdown occurred on Tampa Bay’s opening goal when the Canucks got a bit too cute on the penalty kill and attempted to play keep away in the neutral zone. An errant back pass to Myers sailed well side of him and around Vancouver’s net, where Thatcher Demko rimmed the puck around the wall and off forward Pius Suter at the left-side half-wall.
As the puck squirted loose to Myers in the slot, he had space and time to clear it with conviction. A slapper up the middle. A high flip out of the zone.
Instead, he sent the puck up the wall, where Paul cleanly picked it off. Two “Grade A” Steven Stamkos scoring chances, an untimely Myers slide that compounded the first mistake, and a Paul shot off of the second rebound later, and the Lightning had the lead.
Dave Mishkin calls Nick Paul’s power play goal pic.twitter.com/xdn4pjF32A
— Bucs Rays Bolts (@BucsRaysBoltsYT) October 19, 2023
“I was trying to clear it,” said Myers postgame of his failed clearing attempt that led to the opening goal. “I think I had more time than I thought. I couldn’t get any air under (the puck), and looking back I wish I had held onto it a second longer. It was unfortunate.”
Hearing his answer, I followed up by asking Myers if he was struggling a bit with his confidence. I wondered if, perhaps, it’s the sort of play he might’ve taken more time on if he wasn’t squeezing his stick a bit too tightly, particularly after the club’s debacle performance in Philadelphia earlier this week.
“I don’t like that play,” he continued. “I don’t know how I could like it, but I like where my game is at. You know, it’s just a play I’d like back. The Philly game is one we’d all like to forget about, but overall we’re pushing to do the right things, and I like where my game is at mentally. We just need to keep pushing forward.”
The other penalty-killing breakdown occurred in the third period, when Elias Pettersson partially tied up Paul along the right-side boards after a puck rebounded to that part of the ice following a Paul jam attempt in the crease.
Defenders on the penalty kill are coached to react to certain triggers, moments when the puck slows and the power play cycle can be broken up, even by defenders in an outnumbered situation. A battle along the wall low in-zone is one such trigger.
Myers reacted promptly and attempted to even out the numbers in the puck battle, with Point already skating over to Paul’s aid. Unfortunately, instead of connecting with Point or with Paul, Myers instead split the two Lightning attackers and took out Pettersson, which permitted Tampa’s “PP1” a five-on-two opportunity down low that all Lightning attackers recognized immediately.
With Tampa’s skaters prowling toward the net like a pack of territorial raccoons, Paul simply waited until the sheer volume of options froze Demko before sending a pass to Kucherov for the game-winning goal.
Dave Mishkin calls Kucherov’s power play goal, great setup by Nick Paul pic.twitter.com/CIfSk6awps
— Bucs Rays Bolts (@BucsRaysBoltsYT) October 20, 2023
“Petey created a battle in the corner,” Myers explained of how he saw the play unfold postgame. “I tried to get in there, pushed the guys into the battle. We got tangled up and they were able to pop out of the corner with it.”
Was it the right read, I asked, and just a bad outcome?
“I think so,” Myers said, handling my pointed question with commendable good humour. “I just need to try and push them into the pile and not Petey.”
As Canucks fans watched Myers’ tough night four-on-five unfold in real time, the pile-on began. The errors were loud and immediately resulted in goals against, to the point where Myers’ nickname — “Chaos Giraffe,” a reference to both his significant stature and his penchant for exciting plays in both directions — trended in Canada.
I can only imagine what non-hockey fans think when they see “Chaos Giraffe” trending in Canada 😂 pic.twitter.com/0B4Z7rR1YJ
— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) October 20, 2023
And there’s really no defending the breakdowns on their merits. Myers had a tough game. He made two key, untimely mistakes that led to goals against, and he copped to that postgame. He knew, he owned it and he’s been around long enough to know that there’s going to be nights like this in a league like the NHL.
“There’s going to be breakdowns,” Myers said, reflecting on his game. “There’s no point in dwelling on it. It’s important for our young guys to know that bad things are going to happen, and if you sit down and hide, it’s no good for anyone.
“You just have to keep pushing forward, keep coming together as a group. I liked our game tonight, definitely some things to clean up structurally, but I thought we battled for a good chunk of the game.”
Vancouver did battle on Thursday night in Tampa, but in truth, the result — a second consecutive regulation loss — was deserved. Tampa Bay was the better team and controlled the game.
Vancouver took a pair of undisciplined penalties in the first that, because of the breakdowns, served to spot the Lightning the lead. After battling back early in the second period — with Myers himself scoring a seemingly redemptive go-ahead goal with a nearly perfect slap shot — Vancouver then looked stuck in the mud for a key 25-minute stretch in which the Lightning won the game.
From the moment Myers scored 62 seconds into the second frame until Myers took out Pettersson, permitting Paul to set up Kucherov’s game-winner about five minutes into the final frame, Vancouver was outshot 20-6. The club was good in the first period — the J.T. Miller line in particular looked dominant in stretches — excellent in the first minute of the second period and fought hard to comeback in the waning moments of the third period. There were commendable moments for Vancouver in this contest.
That 25-minute stretch, however, was killer. The penalty-kill breakdowns were costly, but that stretch was the game, and that’s on all 18 skaters in Vancouver’s lineup — not on Myers solely.
Hockey is a momentum game, and spending 25 minutes under siege is inevitable here and there over a long season. Vancouver, however, has played four games now, and stretches like the 25-minute lull that cost them on Thursday night in Tampa have occurred in each of their last three games.
Three games into this current road trip, and the club has been outshot by a ridiculous margin — 58 to 16 — with the long change in the second period. There’s just no way any team can survive regular, prolonged stretches where the ice is slanted like that on an every-game basis. Not even a team with a starting goaltender playing as well as Demko has to open this season.
No one can understand why it’s tempting for Canucks fans to imagine this club’s problems are solely the responsibility of one second-pair defender. Particularly when that player was acquired by the previous Canucks regime and is in the final year of their deal as Myers is. “The plan would be working if it weren’t for Myers and his oversized cap hit!”
Here are the facts, though: With Myers on the ice at five-on-five this season, the Canucks have outscored their opponents 5-1.
Vancouver’s underlying form with Myers on the ice at evens — its control of the territorial battle, as measured by shot attempts or expected goals or whatever peripheral measure you prefer — isn’t good, but it’s better than it has been with several of the club’s other defenders on the ice, including Carson Soucy and Ian Cole.
And Myers has been, from training camp through the preseason and even over the course of the first four games of the regular season, Vancouver’s fourth-best defender on merit.
This Canucks team isn’t better if Noah Juulsen or Mark Friedman or Cole McWard were to be plugged into Myers’ role. That’s pure fantasy.
It’s worth noting, in fact, that when Vancouver is bought in and rolling — as it was in the 2019-20 season, or in the bubble, or during “Bruce There It Is!” down the stretch of the 2021-22 campaign — Myers looks totally fine. When the environment around him is more challenging, however, Myers is often the player whose struggles are most noticeable.
Which speaks more to what Myers is and where he’s at in his career. Myers was drafted 15 years ago and will turn 34 this season. Although his cap hit is that of a 1A defender, which is inconvenient, Myers has understandably moved into a new phase of his career. He’s at the stage of his career where he’d be best used on a contending team as a supporting player, rather than as a top-four fixture.
And I’m convinced he’d be up to that task if given the opportunity, provided he’s in the right environment and in a more prescribed role, particularly given some of his rare attributes — the size, the reach, his ability to surf and defend the neutral zone. It’s just going to require better infrastructure and, unless the Canucks begin to control play at a more creditable rate, a better environment.
It’s understandably tempting to isolate the blame for the Canucks sputtering this week after two exciting wins over the Edmonton Oilers to open the season on Vancouver’s fourth-most-used defender.
If it’s all Myers’ fault, after all, then it’s easy to ignore that while Vancouver seems improved in so many facets of the game, this is still a team that once again isn’t performing near its potential in the early going.
(Photo: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)