After long journey, Canucks' Martin is finally a winning goalie in the NHL

J.T. Miller recorded his second career hat trick to lead the Vancouver Canucks past the Winnipeg Jets 5-1.

It was J.T. Miller’s night. But it has been Spencer Martin’s week.

Seven days ago, the 26-year-old minor-league goalie, fifth on the Vancouver Canucks’ organizational depth chart when this season began, hadn’t started a National Hockey League game in five years.

Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets, he stopped 33 of 34 shots in his third game in seven nights and picked up his first NHL win in a 5-1 Vancouver victory driven by Miller’s hat trick.

Nine years since the Colorado Avalanche drafted him in the third round, Spencer Martin is a winning goalie in the NHL.

“It's incredibly special,” Martin told reporters on Zoom after hiking his three-game save percentage to .958. “Having it go well and get a win, I don't know if it has sunk in yet. But hopefully just keep building off of it. It's a really special day for me.”

Martin was brilliant in his first two starts, stopping 80 of 84 shots against the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers but losing 2-1 in a shootout and 3-2 in overtime. He got far more help from teammates on Thursday as the Canucks’ five goals matched their high-water mark since Bruce Boudreau became head coach on Dec. 5.

“It's great for him,” Boudreau said. “I think that's three outstanding games he's played for us in a row. I can't be happier. He kept us in there and he got points in every game for us. I think it's the makings of a really good goalie.”

BINNINGTON 2.0?

It’s possible that no one will do what Jordan Binnington did with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, escaping years in the minors by climbing the depth chart to seize the starting job in mid-season and lead his team from last-overall to the Stanley Cup.

But Boudreau said Martin’s surprising emergence during the Canucks’ COVID crisis, which sidelined both starter Thatcher Demko and backup Jaroslav Halak, reminds him of Binnington. That’s a pretty lofty comparison, but an interesting one because Martin and Binnington have become friends as summer training partners in the Toronto area.

The Tampa Bay Lightning gave Martin to the Canucks last summer for “future considerations” when minor-league GM and player-development director Ryan Johnson figured it would be a good idea to have a third goalie in the American Hockey League amid the ongoing pandemic.

Martin embraced technical changes brought in by Canuck goalie guru Ian Clark and minor-league instructor Curtis Sanford, climbed past younger prospects Mike DiPietro and Arturs Silovs in Abbotsford and was ready when he got a chance in the NHL for the first time since three appearances for Colorado in 2016-17.

“I stayed confident as best as I could,” Martin said of the last five years. “I know that there's a ton of good goaltenders and players in the AHL, too, so I knew that if I did get a chance, I would try to be as ready as possible. And then you look at some of the cases, like Binnington and just looking up to him and working with him in the summers, and thinking about how he was able to step in after waiting a little bit ... I kind of draw from that and try to be ready.”

MORE MARTIN

We’re going heavy with Martin because his start in Winnipeg had extra gravitas.

Halak returned from COVID protocol on Thursday, but backed up only because he hadn’t a chance to practise. Demko, bound for the NHL All-Star Game next weekend, is due to rejoin the Canucks before Saturday’s game in Calgary. So despite his breakthrough, Martin may not play again in the NHL for a while.

“The great decisions (we have) are we know we've got another goalie in the system that we can call up and have confidence in at any time,” Boudreau said. “He has played great. But ... Demko and Halak have proven that they're great goaltenders, so it's not going to be a difficult decision. When it does happen and we do have the two healthy (NHL) goalies, we will know that we have a third just waiting ... to get to the NHL. He's been consistent for three games, and I'm sure he would be consistent if we had to play him a fourth.”

MILLER TIME

At the epicentre of trade conjecture, Miller had the kind of virtuoso performance that makes him one of the top power forwards in the league and has other teams pitching offers to the Canucks.

He scored his first hat trick in four years -- shooting from distance on the first three goals Connor Hellebuyck allowed -- was jamming the net when Brock Boeser scored Vancouver’s fourth, went 13-4 on faceoffs, and logged 4:01 of penalty-kill time among the six minutes the Canucks were shorthanded without allowing a goal.

“I have a job to do here,” Miller said when asked about the trade chatter. “I look forward to every game I play. And sometimes you get some luck. That's about it.”

The Canucks are listening to offers but feel no urgency to trade Miller, who is under contract through next season at a bargain $5.25-million per. New general manager Patrik Allvin is expected to take at least the next 2-3 weeks to watch and assess the roster he has inherited, and Canucks president Jim Rutherford told Sportsnet that, “ideally,” he wants to give these players the chance to make the playoffs if they stay in the race. On raw points, the Canucks were three out of the wildcard spot after Thursday’s win.

BETTER FROM BEST

One game after Boudreau told reporters he needed the Canucks’ top line to be their best line and not get overshadowed by others, top-three players Miller, Boeser and Elias Pettersson combined for five goals and nine points against the Jets. Pettersson, however, was split off to another line with Thursday’s return from COVID of winger Conor Garland, who was pointless but had four shots in 14:44 of ice time.

“I don't think he should have to say that for us to feel like that,” Miller said when asked about Boudreau’s challenge. “That should be part of our responsibilities as hockey players. We have a lot of good depth up and down our lineup and we have a lot of guys that step up ... which is a great thing to have. But at the same time, we need to take it game by game and play a little like we did today.”

Or a lot.

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