In an unfair world, sports are meant to be a haven of equitability. The rules are supposed to be the same for everyone, each team has the same number of players, and any team on any given night can outplay the other and win.
The promise of sports is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded, which is so attractive because it just isn’t the case in other areas of life.
In less serious ways, if sports were fair, Spencer Martin would already have his first NHL win.
He deserved it on Friday, when he made his first NHL start in five years and backstopped a depleted Canucks roster to the shootout against one of the best teams in the league, only to fall to the Florida Panthers’ superior skill.
He deserved a chance to win on Sunday, but a false positive COVID-19 test held him out of the lineup, forcing Michael DiPietro to start in his place, with an emergency backup from the UBC Thunderbirds.
And he definitely deserved to win on Tuesday, when he made a whopping 47 saves on 50 shots against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. The Canucks were out-shot 50-to-27 but thanks to Martin, the game went to overtime, earning the Canucks a point they arguably didn’t deserve.
The right thing — the fair thing — would be for the Oilers to have conceded the game, admitting that Martin was just too good and granted him the first-career victory that he so richly deserved. Instead, they very unfairly scored with just 23 seconds left in overtime, robbing Martin of the win.
The worst and most unfair part is that it’s kind of Martin’s own fault that he didn’t get the win. In the midst of an outstanding performance, making save after save against two of the most potent offensive players in the NHL, Martin allowed one absolute stinker of a goal. That goal ended Martin’s shutout bid and sparked the Oilers’ third-period comeback.
It just isn’t fair. I was reminded of the many injustices of life when I watched this game.
- Martin wasn’t the only returnee to the lineup from the COVID-19 list. J.T. Miller came back into the lineup, though not Thatcher Demko, though they both went into the NHL’s COVID protocol at the same time. That suggests Miller got a negative test but Demko either has symptoms or tested positive.
- Of course, if Demko had returned, we wouldn’t have seen such a fine performance from Martin. I particularly enjoyed this save sequence without his stick, as he never took his eyes off the puck, even as he grabbed his loose stick before making one final save and completely swallowing the rebound. Martin is as cold as ice and I suspect he’s also willing to sacrifice our love.
- They say you have to be good to be lucky, so Martin must be very good, as he also got the benefit of the Oilers hitting three goalposts on Grade-A scoring chances. But this is why they call goaltenders “netminders” and not “postminders.” Martin kept the puck from going in the net and as long as it didn’t go in the net, he didn’t mind.
- The Canucks were first on the board thanks to a stunning shot by Elias Pettersson, which feels really good to say again. It started with a savvy steal in the neutral zone, then Pettersson went freewheeling up the ice, used Cody Ceci as a screen, firing a laser through Ceci’s legs and into the top corner, where Hollywood Squares keeps Rich Little.
- That shot was perfectly-placed. One of the hardest places for a goaltender to make a save is on a shot right past his shoulder. There was no way for Mikko Koskinen to get his glove up in time and throwing his elbow at it was ineffectual. The only way for Koskinen to stop it would have been to throw himself completely off-balance to get his shoulder on it and that is utterly unnatural for a modern goaltender, who is trained to not just stop one puck but to stay balanced and centred in order to get right back into position for any follow-up saves.
- Oilers fans frequently complain about Connor McDavid not drawing as many penalties as he should, suggesting referees let opposing players get away with too much against him. On Tuesday, the pendulum swung the other way and McDavid got penalty calls he arguably didn’t deserve. First was this “holding” call on Brad Hunt, when really he just gave McDavid a solid shove in the chest — a perfectly fine defensive play.
- Even when McDavid took a penalty, he got the benefit of the doubt from the officials, who tagged Matthew Highmore for embellishment. It worked out for the Canucks, as Pettersson’s goal came on the subsequent 4-on-4.
- Then there was this crosschecking call on Oliver Ekman-Larsson, where the defenceman gave McDavid the slightest shove in the back and McDavid lurched forward into the boards in an embellishy manner. It was Embellishish. Embellishesque. Really, the withering look Ekman-Larsson gave the referee was more violent than the penalty itself.
- For once, however, the Canucks actually won the special teams battle and it was thanks to a bit of shorthanded brilliance from J.T. Miller and Tyler Motte. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins set up McDavid for a backdoor tap-in but Miller robbed him of a sure goal with a firm stick. He then sent Motte away on a shorthanded breakaway and the one-time 32-goal scorer in the NCAA fooled Koskinen with a quick shot along the ice.
- Ryan McLeod started the Oilers comeback when Brad Hunt gave McLeod a little bit too much space and the centre snapped a shot from a bad angle. The only gap bigger than the one Hunt left for McLeod is the one between McLeod’s teeth. Unfortunately, Martin didn’t seal the post and you know what happens when you don’t seal the post: the postal carrier reads all your mail. I mean, the puck sneaks between you and the post for a goal.
- The Oilers got the tying goal after a power play where they kept the Canucks penalty killers hemmed in the defensive zone for the entire two minutes apart from another shorthanded breakaway for Motte. Some big Martin saves killed off the penalty but the Oilers kept the pressure on until Leon Draisaitl hammered a one-timer in. By the time of the goal, Motte had been on the ice for 3 minutes and 11 seconds.
- The Lotto Line was reunited in this game, as Bruce Boudreau loaded up one primary offensive line and, despite Pettersson and Miller figuring into both goals, the line struggled at 5-on-5. One of the troubles of loading up one line is that it makes the opposing team’s job that much easier: shut down the one line and you’re good to go. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Miller and Pettersson centring separate lines next game.
- Meanwhile, the Motto Line — Tyler Motte, Juho Lammikko, and Matthew Highmore — were deployed as a full-on shutdown line, matched up directly against McDavid. For the most part, McDavid ate them alive but he does that to pretty much everyone. They kept him to just the one goal and it came in overtime when they weren’t on the ice, so mission accomplished, I suppose. I just want to reiterate that Boudreau’s infatuation with that line as a match-up checking line makes me very, very nervous.
- Case in point: Boudreau’s insistence on using Lammikko and Highmore in overtime, while Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin stayed on the bench. You simply can’t play defensive, shutdown hockey in 3-on-3 overtime. There’s just too much space on the ice. It doesn’t work, especially against a guy like McDavid, who is going to get his chances no matter what. Your best bet is to use your best offensive forwards, keep the puck off McDavid’s stick, and score before he can.
- That said, Highmore being on the ice in overtime did give us this Supermanian effort at blocking a shot, which was very funny even if it wasn’t effective, so it’s not all bad.
- Overtime was a shooting gallery for the Oilers, out-shooting the Canucks 9-to-1. Honestly, nine shots is a decent amount for a full period, let alone a five-minute overtime.
- One reason why the Oilers controlled play so thoroughly was this baffling moment when Tyler Myers dumped the puck in for a line change, which is not something you ever do in overtime. All it accomplished was giving up possession of the puck and possession is everything in overtime. Worse, Miller was open cross-ice at the blue line, waiting for a pass so he could control the puck as the Canucks completed their change.
- Martin could only do so much. After eight-straight saves in overtime, Darnell Nurse broke in 2-on-1 with McDavid and fought off Hughes to pass the puck in front with one hand and Jason Dickinson couldn’t get back in time to tie up McDavid’s stick. Like a mobster whose brake lines have been cut, Martin had no chance to make the stop.