Canucks confident Jacob Markstrom will return to form in playoff debut

Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom (25) makes the save during second period NHL action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Edmonton, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON – On Wednesday, after allowing three goals on the first 19 shots he faced in an exhibition loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom said he felt sharper by the end of the game than he had at the beginning but still needed to work on his craft.

He wasn’t worried because he had three days to fine tune with goaltending guru Ian Clark – enough time to “dial in” his game before the Canucks open their first playoff series in five years on Sunday night against the Minnesota Wild.

Three more days to wait and get ready.

Markstrom could handle that. He has been waiting 10 years for this opportunity.

After 270 games in the NHL, plus another 165 in the minors, Markstrom finally has a chance to prove he can be a playoff starter in the best league in the world.

“I’ve waited a long time,” Markstrom said when the Canucks opened their summer training camp in July. “I love these games, I love playoff hockey even though I haven’t been a part of it at this level. But it’s my favourite hockey. August can’t come quick enough for me.”

Well, here it is.

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Of the seven Canucks expected to make their Stanley Cup playoffs debut against the Wild, Markstrom is easily the oldest at age 30. The next closest is 26-year-old defenceman Troy Stecher, who has been a pro for only four years.

Put another way, Markstrom may have the least time remaining to make up for what he has been missing since he arrived in the AHL in 2010, two years after the Florida Panthers drafted Markstrom 31st overall out of Gavle, Sweden.

We know goaltending years are different than skater years, and Markstrom still appears to be getting better after improving in each of his three seasons as Vancouver’s starter and posting a career-best .918 save rate in the year of the coronavirus.

But emerging Canucks stars like Brock Boeser, 23, Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, still have their professional hockey lives ahead of them. Unless he plays until he is 40, Markstrom’s career is more than half over.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning promised again this week that the team and Markstrom will agree after these playoffs on a new contract that will keep the goaltender from leaving Vancouver as an unrestricted free agent.

Rebuilt around a new core of young stars and mid-career pros, this Stanley Cup tournament should be a foretaste of the feast to come for the Canucks. Markstrom has a chance to be a vital part of this ascendancy.

He was their most valuable player this season. Now the six-foot-six netminder just has to be that good again in the playoffs. After a five-month layoff that started with knee surgery in February. And only one warmup game to get ready. On an expiring contract. No pressure.

“He wants to win as bad as anyone else,” Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters on Saturday. “I’ve seen him first-hand in this kind of situation – playoff scenarios. It doesn’t surprise me whenever we seem to lose a game (like on Wednesday) where we couldn’t score, Marky tends to say he needs to be better. Marky just needs to be Marky. We’ve got a lot of belief in him. He’s fine, he’s going to great.”

His teammates certainly think so.

“I think he’s probably the best goalie I’ve ever played with,” veteran winger Antoine Roussel told Sportsnet.

Roussel was a teammate of Ben Bishop in Dallas before signing in Vancouver as a free agent two years ago.

He said he knew Markstrom was good during Roussel’s first season with the Canucks, but concluded the goaltender was special last fall when he was able to deliver some astounding performances while dealing with the death of his dad back in Sweden due to cancer. Roussel was amazed at Markstrom’s mental and emotional strength.

“When his father passed away, he still played that game,” Roussel said, referring to a 2-1 loss at home to the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 10. “And he stood on his head. To me, it was exactly at that moment I knew you could win the Cup with this guy. He has that ‘X’ factor — that even when the pressure is on and things are going on, he’s still right there. To me, that’s the proof of a real contender.”

It was Markstrom’s mental fortitude and fierce competitiveness – and a superb season under Green with the Utica Comets in 2014-15 when any NHL team could have claimed the goalie on waivers – that convinced Benning to trade popular incumbent Eddie Lack to make room on the Canucks for Markstrom.

Third-line centre Adam Gaudette, 23, and fourth-line penalty-killer Tyler Motte, 25, are also expected to make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts on Sunday.

And 28 years after logging his first post-season game as a player with the New York Islanders, Green will coach his first NHL playoff game.

“You wait your whole life, you grow up watching Stanley Cups being won,” Green said. “When you get to that, it’s exciting. I talked about it a little bit yesterday (with the team). I think it’s different for certain players. The guys that are so-called stars or elite talent, they seem to handle that pressure in different ways than guys that are middle-of-the-lineup kind of guys.

“The frame of mind for each player can be a little different on where they’re at in their career and where they’re at with their skill level, but it always amazed me how the star players wanted the puck on their tape in any situation. They wanted the pressure. We want a team that wants to be in these kinds of games. We want to coach in these games, we want to play in these games. To get where we want to go, you’ve got to love it and you’ve got to embrace that pressure.”

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