VANCOUVER – Each of the three Vancouver Canucks who spent the weekend in St. Louis had a surprising and revealing moment at the National Hockey League’s All-Star tournament.
Few people suspected a forward as lean and wiry as Elias Pettersson could slap a puck 102.4 m.p.h. and compete with a handful of brawny defencemen for the hardest shot.
Even Wayne Gretzky couldn’t believe that Quinn Hughes, a rookie defenceman, had the hands and reach to score like Peter Forsberg on a one-handed, breakaway deke.
And until goalie Jacob Markstrom explained it on Sunday, nobody knew there was a Swedish word that sounds like puck, which was not quite what the microphone-wearing Canuck shouted at himself after allowing a weak goal.
“That’s a Swedish word,” Markstrom claimed after the Canucks ended their schedule break with an afternoon practice at the University of B.C. “Honest mistake. I totally forgot (about the microphone); I just blanked out. I didn’t even think about it until after. It’s never good to say swear words or curse words on live TV.”
Yeah, then what about Green Day?
“They’re rockstars,” Markstrom said. “I’m not.”
Give him time. Markstrom has been playing like a rockstar in Vancouver for more than a year.
As the Canucks resume their quest for a playoff spot Monday night at Rogers Arena against the St. Louis Blues, the unexpected leaders of the Pacific Division have a few things going for them. But nothing in the next couple of months is likely to be as important as Markstrom’s goalkeeping.
With his 18 wins and .916 save percentage, which are more impressive than they seem when you factor in the shot-quality he faced in the first half of the season, Markstrom has been the Canucks’ MVP.
The team won 11 of its last 14 games before its bye week and impressively reshaped its game after getting ventilated 14-4 during two losses in Florida nearly three weeks ago.
The Canucks were noticeably better defensively in the five games that followed when they went 4-1 – they lost only on Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s 37-save shutout – and finished last Saturday with a 4-1 victory in which they held the San Jose Sharks to seven shots on net through two periods.
But Markstrom remains their biggest asset as the Canucks push for their first playoff appearance since 2015.
“Being an all-star says the kind of season he’s had,” coach Travis Green said. “We have a lot of faith in him. I think our team rallies around him. But what I like about our group is the last five games that we played, you could kind of see a different way we’ve won. It’s more conducive, I think, to this time of year.”
Markstrom is so fiercely competitive, it’s hard for him to ratchet down intensity even for practice. So going to the three-on-three All-Star tournament, where defence is like a four-letter word and goalies are annually sacrificed to shooters, took the 29-year-old (until Jan. 31) way out of his competitive comfort zone.
“My mindset is pretty much always the same: I hate losing and stuff like that,” he said. “It doesn’t help my game when I don’t have that mindset. But it’s so much fun (at the All-Star Game) and you’ve got to take it for what it is and just enjoy it.”
Naturally, Markstrom helped the Pacific Division win the showcase tournament. But he hasn’t played a real game since Jan. 16 and said after a two short leaves of absence last fall that not playing affected his hips and knees and puck-tracking.
After facing the Stanley Cup champion Blues, the Canucks leave Tuesday on another five-game road trip.
“It’s seeing shots,” Markstrom explained. “I felt that at the skills competition (on Friday). Warming up, you’ve got shots coming at you. When you don’t see it in a while, you get unused to it pretty quick. I think that’s the major key — just to kind of trust your game.”
Markstrom, Pettersson and Hughes all practised Sunday because Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini flew them home from St. Louis on a private jet.
Pettersson, who scored twice in Team Pacific’s 5-4 win against the Atlantic Division in Saturday’s final, said he knows he surprised people with his third-place finish in the hardest-shot competition.
“Don’t get fooled because you look skinny,” he said. “It’s like Justin Thomas in golf. He looks skinny but he bombs it.”
Hughes can’t remember trying a one-handed deke in a “real game,” but noted defencemen, typically, don’t get breakaways in real games.
He hasn’t even tried the move in practice “because I don’t want Marky getting mad at me.”
Even without a meaningful game, it was a feel-good week for the Canucks.
Might they have lost some of that desperate hunger that drove them before the break?
“Take a look at the standings and it’s a hard no,” Markstrom said.
There is a four-way tie for second place in the Pacific just one point behind the Canucks, who have a four-point cushion in the playoff race and games in-hand on most teams.
What a surprise.