During a crucial seven-game post-Christmas homestand that concluded on Monday night with a dramatic, streak-breaking 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers, Jacob Markstrom kept the Vancouver Canucks’ season afloat.
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, an injury-depleted Canucks side appeared to be sinking fast. They were surrendering scoring chances against at a dizzying rate, and largely as a result, wins were few and far between.
As a five-game losing streak was only briefly interrupted before a three-game losing streak began, the Canucks appeared to be losing the plot. A funny thing happened after Christmas though.
Despite short-term injuries to key top-of-the-roster pieces like Miller, Henrik Sedin and Chris Tanev, which further compounded the long-term injuries to Brandon Sutter and Dan Hamhuis, the Canucks found ways to win. The team began to score late game-tying goals. They started winning in 3-on-3 overtime.
Perhaps most shocking, the Canucks managed to win even when the Sedin twins weren’t scoring. Henrik and Daniel have carried the club offensively all year, but they’ve managed only four points each in seven games since Christmas. And still the Canucks won four of seven games, and took at least one point from five of the seven contests.
If you’re looking for reasons that explain how the Canucks have managed to stay afloat, you need look no further than Markstrom’s recent save percentage binge (though an offensive explosion from Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi deserves honorable mention here also).
Markstrom, 25, came into this season with a career save percentage below .900, but he’s performed remarkably well over the past two weeks. The cagey goaltender might be the only person who isn’t surprised.
“In the back of my mind I've always known that I was able too,” Markstrom said of performing at a high-level against NHL shooters.
“Obviously you're upset,” Markstrom continued, addressing his struggles in the not-so-distant past. “You're mad when it doesn't go the way you want it to go.
“For me, except for the first year when I was homesick, it was never that this ‘league is too good and I have to go home and play’. That was never the case."
With Miller injured, Markstrom started all seven games on the Canucks’ recent homestand. Making seven starts in 19 days, Markstrom managed a .922 save percentage and stopped nearly 93 per cent of all shots faced at even strength.
“(My confidence in Markstrom) is quite a bit higher (now)”, Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said, when asked how Markstrom’s recent performance has changed his opinion about his ostensible backup.
“He hadn't proved anything at the start of the year,” Desjardins continued. “He was a good goalie in the American League, but he hadn't proved it at the NHL level.
“And it isn't just that he proved it, but he proved it kind of being a No. 1 there, where he had to play well because there wasn't going to be another guy ready. I think he got good experience from that and played well."
As good as Markstrom has been, both he and Daniel Sedin suggested that the Canucks have been playing better defence of late.
“We've played a lot better defensively now too, I think,” Sedin said of the club’s recent form.
“We're playing tighter defensively, and we're still scoring, we haven't scored a lot, but we've scored enough to win games,” he continued. “This is going to be huge down the line too, we know we have to play in one-goal games."
Markstrom largely agreed with Sedin’s assessment on Monday.
“Except for the first couple minutes, I thought most of the shots were from the outside and we blocked a couple big bombs from the blue-line,” Markstrom said of his club’s play on Monday.
“Shots from the outside is nice,” Markstrom later added. “You want those all night if you can choose and not the ones right in front of you. That's what's happened and that's what's going on.”
Though the club’s two-way deficiencies are still plain to see – despite the four recent wins, the club has been out-attempted, outshot, out-chanced and outscored since Christmas– it’s true that the defensive play has shown modest signs of improvement. During the seven-game homestand the club surrendered scoring chances against at the lowest rate they’ve managed in a seven-game stretch since Sutter left the lineup with injury in early November, according to war-on-ice.com.
In a more competitive division that might not be enough, but in the Pacific Divison the Canucks have managed to steady themselves. Despite dealing with myriad key injuries, they’ve avoided any sort of collapse.
In hockey, sturdy goaltending can cover up any number of sins. Of late, Markstrom has provided just that for the Canucks.