VANCOUVER – The discussion about how many of their remaining games the Vancouver Canucks should devote to Thatcher Demko’s development would be much simpler if Jacob Markstrom would just stop playing so well.
In their garbage-time game Friday against the New Jersey Devils, nearly all the stirring moments between the initial drop of the puck and rookie Elias Pettersson’s opening goal in the second period were when Markstrom was making saves. Which he has done all season.
Among players mentioned in the previous sentence, only one can be the Canucks’ Most Valuable Player and his name doesn’t rhyme with Calder Trophy. Pettersson is the most exciting player to arrive in Vancouver in a generation, and his rapid rise as the National Hockey League’s top rookie is vital to the Canucks’ future.
But Markstrom has been the best Canuck this season, from start to (almost at the) finish.
It wasn’t Pettersson’s shootout re-enactment of Peter Forsberg’s one-handed deke from the 1994 Olympics – which is to Sweden what Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal is to Canada – that left the 20-year-old Canuck grasping for words on Friday.
It was a question about Markstrom, who was brilliant again but still lost 3-2 to the Devils in a shootout after the Canucks squandered a two-goal, third-period lead.
“He’s been unbelievable all year,” Pettersson said, shaking his head after a pause. “Without him, we’d be even in a tougher spot. He’s a great goalie and I wish we could grind out more wins for him because he stands on his head most nights.”
For the record, Pettersson said of his shootout move that fooled Jersey goalie Mackenzie Blackwood: “Of course, that move is famous (in Sweden). It’s a good move if the goalie bites.”
Hooked last Saturday for the first time in 52 starts during his breakthrough season as a starter, Markstrom has responded to that anomaly by stopping 52 of 55 shots over two games, finishing’s Friday’s with 33 saves.
Markstrom’s .913 save percentage for the season is misleading due to the shot quality he faces behind one of NHL’s weakest blue lines, thinned by a constant churn of injuries that have seen top defencemen Alex Edler and Chris Tanev in the lineup together for just 40 of 71 games.
Two games back from a sprained ankle suffered a month ago when Ryan Geztlaf fell on him in Anaheim, Tanev was cruelly injured again Friday when he blocked Kyle Palmieri’s power-play one-timer in the first period.
After a wobbly test skate during a television timeout, Tanev looked despondent as he briefly sat on the bench and lowered his head before leaving the game. He left Rogers Arena on crutches and Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters after the game that Tanev is done for the season.
“He’s a good guy, good player, and a guy we need in our team,” Markstrom said. “That guy’s luck is unbelievable. Pretty much every injury he’s had has been blocking shots from one-timers. You would think after breaking three or four hands, three or four legs and feet. . . he gets out there and has no fear.”
Asked about playing so often without either Tanev or Edler or both, Markstrom said: “When they’re healthy, it’s different. It’s tough when those guys are out.”
Probably the Canucks would blow fewer leads, although Edler was on the ice for both goals against in the final 15 minutes of regulation time.
Just before Kevin Rooney got free of Canucks defenceman Alex Biega and banged a rebound past Markstrom to make it 2-1 at 5:41 of the third, the goalie stopped Devil Blake Coleman on a breakaway.
And right before Stefan Noesen, unchecked directly in front of the net, tied it at 13:34, Markstrom made a point-blank save on Kenny Agostino. Right after the goal, he stopped Travis Zajac on a two-on-one.
Welcome to Markstrom’s world.
Still, it wasn’t enough to get the Canucks a win. Damon Severson scored the shootout winner for the Devils in the seventh round of the skills contest.
“We have to find ways (to win),” Biega said. “We have to be better in all areas, especially game management. I just don’t think we managed the game the right way. We’re up 2-0 and we should be able to play sound defence.
“It seems like every game, no matter whether we win or lose, Marky makes unbelievable saves. We can’t always ask our goaltender to stand on his head every game. We have to help out.”
The Canucks will soon ask Demko, the backup promoted mid-season from the minors, to stand on his head.
Markstrom’s brilliant form, which had the Canucks in the playoff race until February, and a knee injury that Demko suffered during a pre-game warmup on Feb. 4 that kept him out three weeks, has restricted the 23-year-old to just three NHL starts.
The Canucks have 11 games remaining, beginning with the first of back-to-back road games Sunday in Dallas, and Demko should start four or five of them even if going with his backup sends a signal to players from Green that the coach isn’t icing his best lineup.
But Green and general manager Jim Benning need a firmer idea of what they have in Demko. From the time he was drafted in 2014 until this season, Demko was considered the Canucks’ goalie of the future. Right now, however, the future looks secure with Markstrom.