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IWTG: The Canucks' top line erupts to extinguish the Flames

Braden Holtby made 35 saves on 36 shots in the win — "That was just classic Braden tonight."
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The Vancouver Canucks' top-six forwards broke out in a big way to beat the Calgary Flames 5-1. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

One thing the Vancouver Canucks learned about Jacob Markstrom is that he operates at peak efficiency when he gets regular rest.  

It’s not just that Markstrom gets tired — all goaltenders do when pushed too hard — but that he seemed to benefit from regular resets: opportunities to get practice time in, work on specific elements of his game, and refocus mentally.

The Calgary Flames, on the other hand, apparently never received their Markstrom owners manual. Instead, they’ve redlined Markstrom right from opening night, giving him 14 of the team’s 16 starts.

For the most part, Markstrom has been solid, with an above-average .918 save percentage and two shutouts. But on Wednesday against the Canucks, in his seventh straight start, the fatigue started to show. 

It’s not just that the Canucks scored five goals on him — the first time he’s given up five goals all season — but that he seemed to be chasing the game. Sometimes, that chasing was quite literal, as he burst out of his crease to tackle two Canucks on breakaways, but other times it was more that he made large, exaggerated movements in his crease that opened up holes in his stance, a problem that plagued him earlier in his career and seems to crop up again when he doesn’t get the chance to reset with rest.

Look Calgary, here’s some friendly advice. Markstrom is a great goaltender, but you’ve got him signed for six years. Don’t wear him out in the first season. Pace yourself, give your backup a few more starts, and let Markstrom have a nap now and then. He’s yours now — be good to him.

He finally got a break at the end of the game when he was pulled for David Rittich, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for Markstrom when I watched this game.

  • To be clear, the Canucks were full value for the win. The top line was grooving, Nils Höglander was a catalyst for the second line, and Braden Holtby had his best performance of the season. Just because Markstrom looked worn out, don’t think the Canucks didn’t deserve the result: they played a fantastic game.
     
  • The Canucks opened the scoring early off a neutral zone turnover created by Höglander, who was back covering for a pinching Jordie Benn. Höglander knocked the puck off Dominik Simon’s stick, sending Bo Horvat in on a 2-on-1 with Benn, who was still trapped behind the play. It worked out: Horvat faked the shot with a big leg-kick, then sent the pass across to Benn, who didn’t get all of the one-timer, sliding it five-hole instead of top shelf, where Markstrom thought it was going.
     
  • All five Canucks goals were scored at 5-on-5 in this game and they only had one power play, but it’s still worth noting a significant change on the first unit: Brock Boeser was on the left side, where he can make better use of his shot, switching spots with J.T. Miller, who moved to the net front. Like a fitness influencer on Instagram, we’ll see how it works out.
     
  • It was a rough game for the Canucks’ fourth line of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Jake Virtanen, who were hemmed in the defensive for a few extended shifts. Shots on goal were 9-to-1 for the Flames when that line was on the ice, as they just couldn’t move the puck out of the zone. You might as well call Braden Holtby “The Bucket,” with the way he was bailing them out repeatedly.
     
  • “We had a little shift there where we spent a lot of time in our zone. Probably back-to-back shifts,” said Green. “I thought Holtby made some key saves then. It was nice to see for sure, not just for the team but for him too. I know he's wanted to get a big win for our group and he's worked hard the last week. That was definitely a big part of the game.”
     
  • At one point, Olli Juolevi was stuck on the ice for three long shifts in the defensive zone thanks to his teammates’ inability to move the puck out of the zone. Those three shifts lasted 1:27, 2:17, and 1:44. Maybe his teammates have liked his play recently and were just trying to get him more ice time. He finished with 18:59 in total.
     
  • It was a fantastic performance for Holtby, who not only made 35 saves on 36 shots, but looked in control the whole game. He was tracking the puck well and frequently took what could have been dangerous shots in the logo because of how he was anticipating the play. His rebound control was particularly on point, as he sent rebounds exactly where he wanted them to go.
     
  • “Rebounds aren't just putting them in a corner,” said Holtby. “It's putting them to a place where you can transition the other way. I think just getting more used to the way we're playing and where to put those, it helps the transition game.”
     
  • For example, there’s this save on Dillon Dube after a long shift in the defensive zone where the defence wasn’t able to change. Holtby perfectly anticipated the pass to the hard-charging Dube and gave him nowhere to shoot, while simultaneously directing the puck to the sideboards where Beagle was able to move the puck up ice in transition.
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  • “That was just classic Braden tonight,” said Nate Schmidt. “He was out there, he's laughing, he's having a good time, kicking the puck around, even all the way down to the end. In all seriousness, he made a couple of really big saves, like you said, when the game was tight, and that type of mentality that even when it's 5-1, he had a couple of really great saves in the third period to preserve a lead and not make it a close one.”
     
  • The earliest sign that Markstrom was on tilt was when Höglander sent Tanner Pearson in on a breakaway with a nifty bank pass. Instead of staying back, Markstrom came charging out like Dominik Hasek on Marian Gaborik, sending both Pearson and the puck flying. Unlike Hasek, who got a tripping penalty, Markstrom was actually credited with a hit.
     
  • After the collision, Pearson could be seen on the bench and was pretty clearly shouting at Markstrom, “I hope that hurt!”
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  • It didn’t hurt enough for Markstrom to be scared of trying it again, but like battling Mr. Freeze in Batman: Arkham City, the same trick wouldn’t work twice. Horvat neatly knocked down a mid-air pass from Quinn Hughes to split the defence and Markstrom charged out again, but Horvat kept his head up and cut to his forehand around him to put the puck in the empty net.
     
  • The Flames finally got to Holtby thanks to some dreadful defending by Hughes and Benn, who didn’t communicate who had whom on a 2-on-2 rush. Hughes got caught flat-footed as Andrew Mangiapane drove past him and Benn stopped moving his feet, so couldn’t cover for his partner. Both defencemen were standing upright when Mangiapane tucked the puck past a sprawling Holtby, which, like wearing white socks with black dress shoes, is not a good look.
     
  • The Canucks’ top line immediately responded, and I mean immediately. 15 seconds after Mangiapane’s goal, J.T. Miller restored the two-goal lead with a laserbeam into the top corner. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson recovered the puck with a hard-charging forecheck after a dump-in, then Pettersson put the puck right in Miller’s wheelhouse and he turned on it like Olly turned on Jon Snow.  
     
  • The Lotto Line wasted no time extending the lead, adding another goal 37 seconds later. Schmidt and Miller combined to keep the puck in at the blue line and swarmed the net, with the Flames scrambling to recover defensively after the turnover. Schmidt found himself wide open in the slot and so did Miller.
     
  • “It’s just nice to put one into their net for once,” joked Schmidt. “You talk about rebound control, I think Holts just made sure to keep them away from me tonight.”
     
  • The top line added one more before the night was done, with Tyler Myers jumping up with all three forwards for a rare 4-on-1 rush. He gave the puck to Boeser to gain the zone and he kept it, which is a bold move on a 4-on-1, unless you’re an NHL All-Star accuracy shooting champion like Boeser. He made like it was target practice and hit the bullseye over Markstrom’s glove. 
     
  • A lot of the Lotto Line’s success in this game came on simple plays: a dump-in and forecheck, a shot an rebound-recovery, a pass on the rush and shot. They’ve mentioned before that they sometimes need to simplify their game and that they need to execute the fundamentals of winning puck battles and grinding along the boards to create opportunities for their skill to take over. That was on full display in this game.
     
  • “I liked their game tonight, it was a little bit simpler,” said Green. “They caused some turnovers in the offensive zone, took their opportunities on the rush when it was there. I wouldn't say it was a simple game, it was still a high-skilled game when they had the chances and they made good puck decisions.”
     
  • “I think just being closer to each other in the offensive zone, working together and just kind of knowing where each other are,” said Boeser about what’s working better for his line. “I think earlier on in the season we were getting spread out a lot and we didn't have that close support and I think that's huge in the offensive zone. I felt that we were all by each other tonight and moving the puck well and holding on to pucks. Earlier in the season too, we were just getting the puck and kind of throwing it places.”
     
  • With the win, the Canucks won the four-game series with the Flames with a 2-1-1 record. That’s good, because that’s the average record they’ll need over the rest of the season to reach 62 points, a likely cutoff for the playoffs. If they can go 2-1-1 every four games, they’ll probably be a playoff team.