VANCOUVER – There is a problem with the Vancouver Canucks’ schedule.
It is not baseball. They do not play every day, which is what goalie Jacob Markstrom says he would like to do. Instead, the NHL has scattered just four games over two weeks to start the Canucks’ regular season. Thursday, they didn’t even practise.
For a goalie who loves the physical rhythm and mental simplicity of playing often, this is a problem. Maybe the Swede should have tried baseball and its 162-game schedule.
"I’m not very good at baseball, so I can’t do that," Markstrom said seriously, not smiling, when America’s pastime was suggested to him this week. "For my game to be 100 per cent, that never stops. You just keep building, keep building. In the summer, you’ve got October circled on the calendar. That’s when you’ve got to be ready to go."
After losing his first two starts last week in Alberta, in which he was the second-best goalie in 3-2 and 3-0 losses to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, Markstrom was the most under-reported aspect of Wednesday’s 8-2 dismantlement of the Los Angeles Kings in the Canucks’ home opener at Rogers Arena.
He stopped 37 of 39 shots and was especially good in the second period when the Kings had three power plays and long spells of sustained pressure after cutting the Canucks’ lead to 3-1.
The disparity in goalkeeping between Markstrom and Los Angeles starter Jonathan Quick, who stopped every puck the Canucks hit him with and very few others, was halting. In baseball terms, Quick shouldn’t have made it past the third inning, while Markstrom pitched a complete game.
The performance spiked Markstrom’s save percentage through three games to .922, an interesting number since the 29-year-old’s breakthrough season last year featured a .921 save rate over the final four months.
The goalie’s most impressive statistic so far is that he has stopped 100 per cent of the shots he has faced while shorthanded – an NHL-best 18 for 18. Canucks penalty-killing is 10-for-10.
"We were 0-2," Markstrom said before Thursday’s rest day ahead of Saturday’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers. "I played both games and I lost both games. That’s the reality. That’s it."
Yes, but the Canucks didn’t even get a puck past Flames goalie David Rittich on Saturday.
"Doesn’t matter if the other guy doesn’t let in a goal," Markstrom countered. "If I outplay him, we win. It’s very simple to me. I don’t grade myself one to 10 or one to 100; it’s wins and losses. When it’s time that the team needs you to come up with a save, you better come up with timely saves."
It is this intensity and singular mindset that has marked the resuscitation of a career that began when Markstrom was considered the "best goalie in the world outside the NHL" until he went to the Florida Panthers. Only five years ago, the six-foot-six netminder sailed again unclaimed through waivers before another season in the American Hockey League.
"I never look back and say I should have done that instead of this," Markstrom told reporters during the pre-season. "Whatever I did, whatever my mindset was, everything I did was leading up to this point. So, I can’t sit back and regret anything.
"The expectation I have for myself has been really high for more than 10 years now. I want to be really, really good and I expect that from me. When you have an off-game and when the team loses two games in a row, when you don’t play a lot of games, it’s tough to let that sit with you. You come in the next day to the rink and you still have that in the back of your head. That’s not a good thing. With playing so many games, it’s easy to leave that. OK, it happened, watch the video, get better and then go out and have a clear mind when the game starts for the next game."
Markstrom has played 60 games for Vancouver in each of the last two seasons. That figure may be harder to reach this season with Thatcher Demko, groomed to be an NHL starter since general manager Jim Benning selected him in his first Canucks draft, developing as Markstrom’s backup.
But Markstrom has the chance to hold serve and keep the net, especially during the leisurely October schedule that Vancouver will pay for later in the season.
Just as Markstrom’s play on Wednesday was under-reported, so has been the essentialness of superior goaltending to the Canucks’ playoff objectives in their 50th anniversary year in the NHL.
Rookie Quinn Hughes is a marvel on defence, Vancouver’s six-man blue line is better, Elias Pettersson is going to be an offensive superstar, and the scoring depth should be significantly deeper with the summer acquisitions of J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland, plus the autumn development of Adam Gaudette.
But there are many things that must be aligned for the Canucks to catapult forward from last year’s 81-point season into a playoff position next April, and one of the most basic is better-than-NHL-average starting goaltending.
"I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey now," Markstrom told Sportsnet. "It’s easier to come to the rink, easier to do extra work in practice. Playing hockey games, that’s what I know. I’ve been doing it my whole life. Everyday it gets more and more fun and it makes me want to push myself to get better."