COLUMBUS, Ohio – When he played, Dan Cloutier was like a steel cable stretched to its breaking point.
Often he snapped on the ice. But even when he didn’t, that tension inside Cloutier rarely abated when the team struggled. He had trouble sleeping after losses, was still angry when he showed up for practice the next day. Cloutier was wound so tightly mentally, you’d swear at times you could hear him crackle and hum like high-tension power lines in a windstorm.
“Now that I look back, I was fighting myself,” Cloutier explained Thursday. “All the energy and rest I wasted … I just wished I would have learned a little sooner.
“I don’t care what anybody says, when the game starts, you just want to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s 7-6, you just want to win. You want it so much, you’re almost your worst enemy.”
Markstrom sounded like he might snap after losing 3-1 Tuesday to the Washington Capitals in a game that was decided by a 25-minute Canucks’ lull when they were outshot 23-7 and outscored 3-0.
“It’s awful; it absolutely sucks,” he said of the Canucks’ 2-11-2 National Hockey League nosedive the last five weeks. “We’re not playing good enough for 60 minutes. That’s what kills us. You can always say it’s fluky goals we get scored on. But overall, we don’t deserve to win. We don’t play for 60 minutes.”
Markstrom takes losing with the same ferocity as Cloutier did.
After playing as dismally as his team – worse some nights – for much of December, the 27-year-old first-year starter has recaptured his form. Since a 5-4 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 21, Markstrom has stopped 92.5 per cent of opposition shots in five starts. And yet the Canucks have won only once.
Markstrom still displays that disconcerting tendency to allow a bad goal, like Lars Eller’s 35-foot wrist shot he swatted at in vain for the game-winner in Washington. But when a goalie has a .925 save rate, he’s not the problem. Still, Markstrom is losing.
In the season in the American League that probably saved his NHL career, the six-foot-six Swede lost only nine games for the Utica Comets in 2014-15. For the Canucks this season, he has lost eight times since top forward Bo Horvat broke his foot on Dec. 5. For the season, Markstrom is 10-14-5. He has lost 19 of his 29 starts.
That’s a lot of tension.
“I have one speed; I have to go full out,” Markstrom said Thursday after practising for Friday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Last year’s skills competition, I got injured because I can’t go out there and mess around. I don’t like losing and I don’t like letting pucks in.”
Asked if it would be easier if he were wired differently, he said: “I wouldn’t be here right now, for sure. I feel like I’ve done a much better job (managing emotions) from the first two weeks of the season until now. I’m getting better every day, both on and off the ice with the mental stuff. It’s a learning process for me.”
Cloutier said it took him until his second season with the Canucks, after four years in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, to learn to temper his intensity and channel all his energy into playing. To not get in his own way.
Cloutier was 25 years old at the start of the 2001-02 season and had played 126 games in the NHL. Markstrom turns 28 on Jan. 31. His start in Washington was his 140th NHL appearance.
“I’ve been way more emotional after other games,” Markstrom insisted. “It’s not fun. Especially as a goalie when you lose these tight games, you look back at what you could have done differently. You want to help the guys get out of the slump that we’re in. There won’t be any people coming from the outside to help. No magic drinks. We have to work hard in practice and come together and play more like a team, and play for 60 minutes.”
Cloutier is devoting as much attention to Markstrom’s emotions as his game, telling the goalie there is a process to both his development and the Canucks’ season.
“The way he is wired, when the game starts, he’s there to win the game no matter what,” Cloutier said. “There’s nothing in between winning and losing. So when you don’t win, it affects you mentally and physically.
“Especially now that I’m on the other side (as a coach), I think, ‘Holy smokes.’ I mean, I’d lose sleep over losing because I’d be so mad. Once you figure it out, you realize: ‘Why did I lose so much energy over this?’ But it’s much easier to go through that learning process when you’re on a first-place hockey team.”
The Canucks are 29th in the NHL.