On Friday night, the Vancouver Canucks showed exactly why it is so difficult to predict the outcome of a single hockey game.
On paper, the Florida Panthers should have dominated this game. Sure, they had just played the night before and were missing one of their top forwards, Sam Bennett, to injury. But they’re also the highest-scoring team in the NHL, with a deep bench that should’ve been able to easily absorb the loss of Bennett. They cruised to a 6-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers in their previous game and were able to limit the ice time of some of their best players to lessen the impact of games on back-to-back nights.
Besides, the Canucks’ lineup was a wreck.
With six players in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, the Canucks were missing all three of their top-scoring forwards — J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland. More importantly, both Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak were unavailable, forcing the Canucks to go to the farm for the third-string goaltender.
That goaltender was Spencer Martin, who last played in the NHL back in 2017. He played all of three games for the Colorado Avalanche and didn’t win any of them, posting an .865 save percentage.
Martin has been in the AHL ever since and never been particularly good. Even at just 26 years old, it must have seemed difficult to keep the dream of getting back to the NHL alive.
But then the Canucks traded for him. He joined the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL, where they already had two prospect goaltenders vying for time, Michael DiPietro and Arturs Silovs. But he worked with Canucks goaltending coaches Ian Clark and Curtis Sanford and gradually, as the season progressed, he outplayed both prospects, earning starts ahead of them.
“This organization is rich with goaltending prospects,” said Martin after the game. “To come in and join them and work with them, it was a good experience. I got some time at the beginning of the year where I wasn’t playing much to work with Clarky and Sandman in Abbotsford and that, I think, is a huge reason why I feel comfortable in the game now.”
So, when the Canucks needed a goaltender, they turned to the guy with a .921 save percentage in the AHL instead of one of their prospects with a sub-.900 save percentage.
“I just felt incredibly blessed,” said Martin after the game. “I know how hard it is to get to this level and how many experiences it takes to get opportunities…it felt incredible to get an opportunity.”
Martin came through.
On paper, this game looked like it should’ve been a blowout, but, against the most dangerous offensive team in the NHL, Martin stopped 33 of 34 shots to get the game to overtime and earn his team a point, then to the shootout to give them a chance to earn another one.
“I love when American League players that have played there for a while get opportunities and show what they can do,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, who spent a great deal of time in the AHL himself as a player. “There’s a lot of good players that get overlooked because of their age or for whatever reason and they’re really good players.
“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.”
Indeed it was. I, for one, was impressed when I watched this game.
- Martin plays a very aggressive, athletic style that is common among undersized goaltenders, who have to put in a little more effort than a big goaltender to cover the net. Only, Martin is 6’3”, which was a bit jarring to discover. He plays like he’s 5’10”. But hey, if it works, it works. On Friday night, it worked.
- Martin’s most chaotic moment came midway through the second period, when he was forced to scramble when a point shot was blocked. We’ll call it controlled chaos, though, as he kept his wherewithal enough to shoot out his left pad and kick the puck off of Ryan Lomberg’s stick before the Florida forward could even shoot the puck. Then he got the net knocked into the back of his head for good measure.
- The kick save before the player could shoot makes me think of one of the NBA’s great unheralded defenders, Shane Battier, who used to “block” shots by knocking the ball out of his opponent’s hand as they were bringing the ball up into a shooting position, preventing them from getting a shot in the first place. He wouldn’t get credit for a block on the box score, even if the end result was the same. Like Battier, Martin didn’t get credit for a save for kicking the puck off Lomberg’s stick.
- This should have been Martin’s first career NHL win but his counterpart in the Panthers net matched him save for save. It was another Spencer: Spencer Knight. The difference is that Knight was a first-round pick for the Panthers and Martin was acquired for “future considerations,” which I don’t think have ever actually materialized.
- The player Knight stymied the most was Nils Höglander, who had multiple Grade-A chances for the Canucks but couldn’t find the weak point in Knight’s armour. Höglander finished with a game-high six shots on goal on a line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, but couldn’t get a goal.
- Höglander’s best chance came in the second period after he made a nice defensive play to break up a Panthers chance in the slot. He and his linemates broke the other way and Pettersson sucked in the defenceman, then made a nifty move to evade the defender’s stick and send Höglander in alone on Knight, who deflected Höglander’s lancing shot away with his shield. Er, I mean blocker.
- With Horvat and Miller out, the Canucks put together a ramshackle power play with Tanner Pearson and Alex Chiasson joining Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. Of course, Pearson and Chiasson immediately factored into the opening goal: Pearson tipped a Hughes point shot and the pluck fluttered up off Chiasson’s hip and into the net. Unlike Shakira, Chiasson's hips did lie, fooling Knight completely.
- Martin was very appreciative of the goal, which was delightful. We don’t often see goaltenders celebrate goals and now I’m thinking we should always see goaltenders celebrate goals.
- Martin held strong for two periods but the Panthers struck on an early third period power play on a bit of a soft call on Höglander. It was a broken play: Matthew Highmore knocked down a saucer pass and it just happened to go straight to Sam Reinhart, who tucked in the puck as Martin was sliding across to play the original pass. It was frustrating to see the Canucks penalty kill finally breaking up a cross-seam pass only to have it immediately backfire.
- One of the weaknesses of Pettersson’s game has been faceoffs but he’s been gradually getting better. Still, he lost his first seven faceoffs in this game and he started taking turns on faceoffs with Boeser. There didn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason — the right-handed Boeser wasn’t taking all of the faceoffs on his strong side, for instance — but it seemed to work: Boeser only went 3-for-8 but Pettersson went 7-for-10 the rest of the game.
- Pettersson’s calm under pressure, on the other hand, is a clear strength. This moment in the third period when Pettersson recovered a poor pass from Tyler Myers is a perfect example, as he eludes three Panthers players to patiently maintain control until he can make a pass, which just happened to lead to a drawn penalty.
- On the power play, Pettersson showcased some more outrageous skill. After double-clutching on a pass to Hughes at the point, Pettersson recovered to make a ridiculous move underneath a sliding Eetu Luostarinen to keep the possession going.
- Tyler Myers gave all of Canucks nation a collective heart attack in the final minute of the game. With the score tied and the Canucks just trying to get the game to overtime, he sent a puck right up the middle of the ice from behind his own net, turning it over and forcing Martin to make another aggressive save at the top of the crease. To increase the difficulty, Matthew Highmore also tipped the shot on its way to the net. If I didn't know any better, I'd think they didn't like Martin.
- It’s obvious why Tyler Motte has so many fans in Vancouver, aside from his laudable openness about his mental health. On the ice, Motte gives his all, all the time. This sequence was fantastic, as he stole the puck in the neutral zone, drove back into the offensive zone for a scoring chance, probably should’ve drawn a penalty, then delivered a huge hit on the forecheck.
- Still, that doesn’t mean that Motte should be a go-to option in overtime. He came on for the second shift of overtime after Pettersson and Boeser. More inexplicably, the next two forwards on were Highmore and Juho Lammikko. I know the Canucks were missing three top-six forwards, but really?
- It was pretty predictable: Lammikkko and Highmore, along with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, got hemmed into the Canucks zone for over three full minutes. To their credit, they managed to avoid getting scored on but it was a pretty clear illustration that whatever their strengths may be, they definitely do not extend to 3-on-3 overtime.
- Part of the justification Boudreau made for putting Motte, Highmore, and Lammikko on in overtime is that he thought their speed would be an asset, but if you’ve watched a lot of 3-on-3 overtime, you know that despite the open ice, it’s not typically all that fast. In fact, it’s usually pretty methodical, with skilled players controlling possession and looking for ways to crack open the other team’s three-man structure. Speed rarely enters into it.
- Honestly, I'm okay with Motte in overtime. He does have some skill when he's got space to use it and, with the players they had out of the lineup, Motte was an acceptable option. But Lammikko and Highmore are literally the last two players I would use in that situation.
- Meanwhile, Höglander, who was one of the Canucks’ most dangerous forwards, didn’t see a single second in overtime. Neither did Vasily Podkolzin. Boeser got just the one shift.
- Boeser did get to go first in the shootout and made it look easy with a quick deke to the backhand. Pettersson and Hughes were less successful with their own attempts and two Panthers shooters scored on impressive moves, particularly Aleksander Barkov, who somehow shot a backhand with just one hand on his stick.
- “I’ll have to see the replay there because he made a really interesting move,” said Martin. “Hopefully, I didn’t look too bad.”
- Yeah, like the guy who made 33 saves on 34 shots against the highest-scoring team in the NHL could look bad. Sure. Pull the other one.