After five long years out of NHL, Canucks' Martin makes storybook return

Aleksander Barkov scored the shootout winner as the Florida Panthers defeated the Vancouver Canucks 2-1.

VANCOUVER -- With a depleted lineup to match the 50-per-cent seating capacity limit at Rogers Arena, the Vancouver Canucks conjured one of their most surprising performances yet under newish coach Bruce Boudreau.

They lost.

But they took a point from the powerful Florida Panthers despite missing five key players in COVID-19 protocol and giving goalie Spencer Martin his first National Hockey League start in five years.

The 26-year-old journeyman, elevated from minor-league goalie to NHL starter by positive COVID tests to Canuck star Thatcher Demko and backup Jaroslav Halak, stopped 33 of 34 shots Friday against the league’s highest-scoring team before losing 2-1 in a shootout in Vancouver’s first home game since Dec. 14.

“Just to know how hard it is to get to this level, the experiences that it takes to get opportunities,” Martin said after the game. “It's hard to put (into words)… but it felt incredible to get the opportunity.”

“I love when American League players -- and I played there for a while -- get opportunities and show what they can do,” Boudreau said. “A lot of times, there's a lot of good players and they get overlooked. . . and they're really good players. And so, for Spencer to come in and play a game like that against the highest-scoring team in the league, I thought it was really impressive.

“You're playing a really great team and you're missing a lot of your better players. But everybody stepped up to the plate. Some of the guys played more minutes, I'm sure, than they've ever played at the NHL level before and they played good. When you lose, you lose. But when you get a point out of something like that, that's a really good point.”

Beaten 5-2 in Florida last week with a much stronger lineup than was available to the Canucks on Friday -- top forwards J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat and Conor Garland are also in COVID protocol -- Vancouver led for nearly half the game after Tanner Pearson deflected a shot in off teammate Alex Chiasson for a power-play goal at 16:18 of the first period.

Sam Reinhart tied it for the Panthers at 1:41 of the third period, and Aleksander Barkov won it for Florida in the shootout with a one-handed backhand finish on Martin, who made several strong saves late in third period to ensure the Canucks got their point.

“He was awesome,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “He made it look like he was playing with a ton of confidence. I thought he had an unbelievable game for us, stepped up for us. To see a story like that is pretty cool.”

It’s a story about perseverance and belief, hope and second chances. This is why we love sports.

The last of Martin’s only three previous NHL appearances was Feb. 1, 2017 with the Colorado Avalanche. Friday was the five-year anniversary of what could have been the start of Martin’s NHL career, as the former third-round pick made 27 saves in his Avalanche debut during a 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks.

But there has been a lot of NHL disappointment and minor-league games since then. Martin has played on six different minor-league teams, two of them in the ECHL.

He probably learned something about winning as a taxi-squad goalie for the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning last season. But when the Lightning gave Martin to the Canucks last summer -- there won’t be any “future considerations” in the trade -- the goalie from Oakville, Ont., went to the back of the line in Vancouver and started this season fifth on the organizational depth chart. He was the third-string goalie on the Canucks’ minor-league team in Abbotsford, B.C.

Twenty pounds lighter than he was a couple of years ago, Martin embraced instruction from Canucks goalie guru Ian Clark and minor-league goaltending coach Curtis Sanford, and forced his way into the crease, taking starts from younger Canuck prospects Michael DiPietro and Arturs Silovs.

He posted a .921 save percentage in seven games in the American Hockey League before the Canucks elevated him to their taxi squad for the five-game U.S. road trip that started Jan. 11. So Martin was figuratively right in front of Boudreau when Demko followed Halak into COVID protocol on Thursday.

The Canucks are 10-3-2 since Boudreau took over as coach on Dec. 5.

Martin stopped the first 19 shots he faced Friday until he was beaten on a broken play during a Florida power play early in the third period after Canuck Nils Hoglander took a needless tripping penalty behind the Panthers’ net.

Vancouver penalty-killer Matthew Highmore blocked Anthony Duclair’s centring pass, but the ricochet caught Martin moving the wrong way and fell perfectly for Reinhart to tap-in for the tying goal.

Now four games into his NHL career, Martin is still looking for his first win. But the point he earned for them Friday was as appreciated by his team as it was unexpected by everyone else.

And he’ll get career start No. 5 Sunday against the St. Louis Blues. Another chance.

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