CALGARY – You could have a pretty good debate over which was shorter: the amount of time it took for Jacob Markstrom to let in the opening goal, or his post-game media availability.
One took 13 seconds, the other took people’s breath away.
“I just suck at hockey right now,” said the Calgary Flames netminder, with a harsh assessment even by his standards.
“We’re playing good hockey and not letting many scoring chances in, but we can’t start from behind every game.
“The guys did a great job, and once again I’ve got to be better.
“I suck right now, so I’ve got to step up.”
Amidst a horrific start to the season that has seen the reigning Vezina finalist post a goals against average of 3.03 and a save percentage of .889, it was his effort 13 seconds into Sean Monahan’s return that may end up being his rock bottom moment.
Racing out to play a dump-in that had Monahan giving chase, Markstrom slid on his side at the hash marks, only to have the puck carom off him and onto the stick of Canadiens rookie Juraj Slafkovsky.
As two Flames defenders tried in vain to act as backups, the 18-year-old calmly shot it into the net.
Well, not necessarily for a resilient Flames bunch that spent the rest of the night peppering Jake Allen with 46 shots, edging the visitors 19-6 in high-danger scoring chances.
Markstrom only faced 19 shots, yet lost the game.
His Flames battled back to tie the game 1-1, but it was another questionable Markstrom move that led to Cole Caufield’s power-play winner six minutes into the third. The Canadiens got the man advantage after Markstrom slashed Josh Anderson, drawing a crowd that led to an Andrew Mangiapane roughing penalty.
Alas, the difference in a 2-1 loss essentially came down to Markstrom’s game-opening gaffe — a decision so egregious he refused to take the media through his mindset on the play.
“No, I think everybody saw what happened,” he snapped, “and it’s not a good play.”
Markstrom has always been quick to fall on his sword following losses, providing commentary as his own harshest critic.
This was different.
The body language and the terse responses all spoke to just how much his horrible start to the season is weighing on him.
His subpar play is dragging the team down too, as the lads in front of him have compounded the problem by struggling to score goals.
With the loss of Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, everyone knew offence was going to be harder to come by this season.
But the one thing no one expected was a goaltending issue, turned dilemma.
Markstrom’s frank assessment, while admirable, now puts the situation under the spotlight, threatening to dominate the narrative moving forward.
One thing for certain is that this team goes only as far as Markstrom goes.
If he’s unable to find his form in short order, making the playoffs could become a monumental struggle.
The question now is how can he recalibrate?
“Work harder,” said Markstrom, before finishing his brief interview with one more suggestion.
“Stop more pucks.”
In practice or games?
Therein lies the debate.
The answer right now is to give Dan Vladar the ball to run with, as he’s certainly played well enough of late to earn their trust, and plenty of it from Darryl Sutter.
It doesn’t mean the team’s $6 Million Man is being written off or replaced as the starter.
It means starting assignments start to get handed out on merit, not paycheques.
Vladar has been better of late, and is a no-brainer to start Saturday against Washington.
Tear up your goalie plan after that and go game-by-game from there.
Meanwhile, Markstrom can try to build his confidence back up in practice, staying on late and digging into the input he gets on his physical performance, while trying to clear his mind of the self-doubt that seems to have crept in.
The inescapable truth is he hasn’t been right since last spring when the Edmonton Oilers tore him apart in the playoffs.
Only he can change that narrative.
Sutter needs to figure out whether that’s better done in practice or as a starter, and we can all guess which way he’s leaning, given his long history of riding his starter through thick and thin.
His decision will shape the rest of the season.
The story of the game Thursday wound up being the man on the other side of the rink, Allen, who stole the game in Monahan’s honour.
The story of the night was Monahan, making an emotional return to Calgary with two assists on a damaged foot, bookending a stirring, 40-second ovation he said he’ll remember the rest of his life.
The story of the season may end up being Markstrom.
For better or worse.