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I Watched This Game: Canucks get first home win as Martin stymies the Penguins

Spencer Martin still refuses to lose in regulation, earning the win for the Vancouver Canucks.
The Vancouver Canucks got their first home win of the season with a 5-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Like James Brown, Spencer Martin refuses to lose. At least, he refuses to lose in regulation.

Martin made his first start for the Canucks on January 21, 2022 against the Florida Panthers, his first NHL start in five years. He was lights out, making 33 saves on 34 shots against the Presidents’ Trophy winners to force the game to a shootout, where he lost the coin flip. 

Since then, Martin has yet to lose a game in regulation. He continued his eight-game streak on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, stopping 34 of 35 shots, including 15 saves in the third period to secure the first home win of the season for the Canucks. 

“He made the big saves when he had to make them and that’s all I’ve seen from him,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “Eight games now and he’s gotten points in eight straight. I haven’t seen him do anything negative. That’s great when you can have your other goaltender doing that, it makes it an inner competition a little bit.”

Martin is 4-0-4 in those eight starts, with the four overtime and shootout losses largely out of his control. He has a .944 save percentage in those eight games, the best of any goaltender over the past two seasons, at least among those who have appeared in at least eight games. 

In other words, Martin has been incredible for the Canucks and they shouldn’t be shy about using him regularly this season to spell Thatcher Demko, especially since Demko hasn’t been as good as he usually is.

Martin, for his part, remains humble.

“I don’t look at the overtime losses as positively as everybody [else] seems to,” said Martin with a smile. “But I love that we won tonight.”

So did the fans in the building, who were finally given something to cheer about this season. As much as the team got their first win on Thursday in Seattle, they were very fortunate to get that win, as they got out-shot 36-to-19 and barely held on in the third period.

On Friday night, however, the Canucks put together a full 60-minute effort for the first time all season, competing hard right through the third period despite it being the second half of a back-to-back and the Penguins coming in with plenty of rest. They kept the Penguins to the outside (with a few exceptions), defending the middle of the ice as a five-man group remarkably well given their injuries on defence.

“This is the best game [the defence has] played as a collective group,” said Boudreau. “I mean, it’s the first game we’ve allowed less than three goals. It really reminded me of how everybody — defence and forwards — were playing at the end of last year.”

Like Benedict Cumberbatch, the Canucks turned the Penguins into a peng-win when I watched this game.

  • What a difference 48 hours can make. The Canucks are still only 2-5-2, but those two wins made all the difference to the mood in the room. As the media entered the locker room after the game, hooting and hollering could still be heard between teh players, who to a man had wide grins even though they had to talk to us. Amazing what a couple of wins can do.
  • The line of J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland were hard-matched against the Sidney Crosby line and had a strong game, playing a hard, physical game against the Penguins’ best player. Like the gremlin that tormented William Shatner in The Twilight Zone, Miller is at his most dangerous on the wing. 
  • This was a rare miss for Elias Pettersson in his match-up, as shot attempts were 21-to-10 for the Penguins when Pettersson was on the ice at 5-on-5. Of course, he was hard-matched against Evgeni Malkin, so maybe there’s some room for forgiveness, particularly in a game the Canucks won.
  • I have to give some credit to Guillaume Brisebois, who held his own in a tough match-up against Malkin and even some minutes against Crosby. He’s never looked particularly reliable at the NHL level before, but this recent stint has been Brisebois’ best in the NHL, largely because he’s simplified his game and eliminated a lot of mistakes that he used to make.
  • “Not really, no,” said Brisebois with a laugh when asked if he almost feels like a veteran as the third-longest tenured Canuck behind Bo Horvat and Thatcher Demko. “It’s just nice to be here grinding with the guys to get some wins.”
  • While the Canucks largely prevented dangerous scoring chances for the Penguins, the exceptions came almost entirely with Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the ice. Multiple times, Myers and OEL let Penguins forwards skate right past them to get passes for clear breakaways, only for Martin to bail them out like Kenan Thompson in a floundering Saturday Night Live sketch.
  • Special teams was the difference-maker for the Canucks again after helping them get their first win in Seattle. The power play went 2-for-4, but it was basically 3-for-4 with their first goal coming just after the power play ended. It’s night-and-day from how the power play started the season.
  • The Canucks’ second power play unit opened the scoring. Garland shook free of the Penguins’ penalty-killing pressure and faked a slap shot from a bad angle — pretty convincing considering some of the awful angles he typically shoots from. Instead, he sent a hard cross-ice pass to Ilya Mikheyev. Brian Dumoulin left Pearson for only a moment to charge out to Mikheyev, which is when “Mix Master” Mikheyev turned the tables on Dumoulin and sent the puck to Pearson for the tap-in goal. 
  • The first unit gave the Canucks the 2-0 lead with a chance in transition after the Penguins pushed up ice shorthanded. Horvat and Miller came in 2-on-1 and Horvat decided to keep the puck, sending a laser beam into the top corner. 
  • “Usually every time when you see two guys that are really good friends, they always try to make the pass,” said Boudreau of Horvat’s goal. “But the guy did a really good job of taking away the pass.”
  • It took a power play of their own for the Penguins to solve Martin and then only just barely. The Canucks penalty kill overloaded in the corner, leaving Bryan Rust as wide open as the Dixie Chicks’ spaces. Even with Rust able to pick his spot, Martin still got his glove on Rust’s shot, but the puck landed behind him and Rickard Rakell got to the ricochet before Kyle Burroughs.
  • It looked like Garland got the Canucks back on top by two at the end of the second period. In the final seconds, Garland stole the puck from Jeff Petry and immediately hammered a slap shot, knowing time was running out. It was an absolute bullet train of a shot that ripped into the top corner of the net…just after the horn sounded. No goal.
  • The Penguins seemed to take some life from the disallowed goal and came out flying to start the third period. Unlike every single other game this season, however, the Canucks bent but didn’t break. “That’s what confidence does,” said Boudreau, and it makes sense — the win in Seattle reminded the Canucks that yeah, they can actually win a third period and win a game, so it changed the way they played.
  • “We just didn’t have any panic in our game like we’ve had before,” said Horvat about the third period. “We didn’t give up as many odd-man rushes, we kept things a lot more simple and it paid off for us.”
  • Even as the Penguins poured on the pressure, it was the Canucks who scored first in the third. Pettersson picked off a pass in the neutral zone and countered, slipping a pass to Mikheyev for a strong drive to the net. That didn’t work but a moment later Luke Schenn sent a slap shot towards the net and Andrei Kuzmenko neatly tipped it in. The goal was, like Lou Lamoriello, against the flow.
  • “Today was [Schenn’s] best game,” said Boudreau. “I think he’s now our highest-scoring defenceman, so that’s pretty cool for Luke.”
  • Kuzmenko’s goal celebration was incredibly exuberant, especially compared to his subdued reaction to his previous goals this season. “He said it was the first normal goal for him,” said Vasily Podkolzin, translating for Kuzmenko. “The two before it’s been because Millsy passed to him.” Apparently, if the goal is too easy to score, Kuzmenko ain’t celebrating.
  • “I don’t know why I don’t say in English,” said Kuzmenko after he was asked why he had Podkolzin translating for him. “Because my head is very tired, it’s many information. My first day in Vancouver, I think, oh, we’re doing this every day? You learn English every day, that’s okay. But after two weeks, whoa, my head is boom!” Kuzmenko mimed his head exploding as he said “boom” — it was amazing.
  • Late in the game, Burroughs was sent hard into the boards from behind on an ugly hit by Archibald — “I’m okay, I’ve been hit worse,” said Burroughs after the game — giving the Canucks another power play and Horvat made them pay. He neatly tipped an Ekman-Larsson point shot in the slot, to make it 4-1 and ease the nerves of everyone in the arena who was wondering how the Canucks were going to lose the game.
  • To add a little cherry on top of the Canucks’ best game of the season, Miller added an empty-net goal from his own zone to make it 5-1. As someone who likes numbers divisible by five because of the number of digits on my hand, the Canucks’ goal total appealed to my monkey brain and gave me the good chemicals.