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The Canucks desperately need one (or both) of their goaltenders to start stealing wins

Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby haven't been the Canucks' biggest problem, but they haven't been a solution either.
Thatcher Demko tracks the puck in the Vancouver Canucks net.

It’s no use crying over spilt milk. Likewise, there’s no use lamenting over unsigned Swedes.

The last few games have been difficult for Canucks fans, as Jacob Markstrom has put in some vintage performances at Rogers Arena, just for the Calgary Flames instead of the home team. Last Thursday, he made 14 saves in the first period, keeping the Flames in the game long enough for them to take the lead late in the period. On Saturday, he made 20 saves in the first period alone and it took until late in the third period for the Canucks to finally take the lead.

On Monday, the Canucks finally got to Markstrom early with a power play goal and added another in the first period on a 5-on-3 power play. After that, however, Markstrom shut the door. In the third period, Markstrom stopped 15 Canucks shots until Brock Boeser beat the odds with a perfectly-placed shot in the final minute to tie the game. 

So far this season, Markstrom has allowed 8 goals on 171 shots against the Canucks for a sparkling .953 save percentage. It’s understandable why Canucks fans would miss Markstrom. The Canucks players, on the other hand, are trying to move on.

“You’re just playing against the guy,” said Thatcher Demko. “It’s no different than playing against Carey Price or [Mikko] Koskinen in Edmonton, you’re out there trying to win and so is he.”

"The goalie was a little bit slower to get over."

What’s making it harder to get past Markstrom’s absence is that neither Demko or his fellow goaltender Braden Holtby are bailing out the Canucks the way Markstrom did in the past. The Canucks certainly haven’t been great defensively this season, though they’ve taken strides in recent games, but neither has either goaltender been able to come through in key moments.

That’s not to say the Canucks’ struggles this season are the fault of the goaltenders. Far from it — most of the team’s losses have been by wide margins because the entire team has been badly outplayed. There have, however, been opportunities for both Demko and Holtby to be difference makers and help steal wins that the team in front of them doesn’t necessarily deserve.

Take Monday’s game, for example. The cause of the loss was clear: poor puck management that led to defensive breakdowns, odd-man rushes, or bad bounces. That’s on the skaters in front of Demko. At the same time, Demko had an opportunity to steal a win with one or two key stops on those chances.

On the second Flames goal, Demko saw Elias Lindholm coming the whole way off a Bo Horvat turnover, but the centre beat him cleanly on the blocker side. That was a chance for Demko to bail out Horvat and keep the Canucks in the lead. Instead, it was a tie game.

The goal wasn’t really his fault and Horvat was quick to take responsibility after the game. Still, that seems like a situation where a great goaltender steps up.

Then, in overtime, the Canucks had to kill off Quinn Hughes’s late penalty. A 4-on-3 is tough to kill, as there’s so much space for the power play to maneuver. Still, it seemed like Demko could have stopped Johnny Gaudreau’s shot, as it wasn’t high enough to get over his pad if he had been able to get across.

“[Sean Monahan] kind of sold the shot, the goalie was a little bit slower to get over and I kind of had an empty netter,” said Gaudreau after the game.

In truth, Monahan didn’t really sell a shot at all. There was no shooting motion or fake: he just passed across to Gaudreau and Demko appeared to pick it up late.

Again, it’s hard to pin a 4-on-3 one-timer on the goaltender, but it was an opportunity for Demko to come up with a big save and give his teammates a chance to win the game.

At other times, Demko did come through with a big save, such as a third-period stop on a Johnny Gaudreau breakaway that gave the Canucks a chance to tie the game, force overtime, and get at least one point. What the Canucks desperately needed wasn’t just a tie, but a win.

Demko and Holtby's ugly numbers

The truth is, neither Demko nor Holtby have been particularly good this season. So far, it’s been the least of the Canucks’ concerns, as they had little chance of winning games when the defence was so porous, the forwards kept giving the puck away, and the top line couldn’t score at even strength.

Gradually, the Canucks have been dealing with those other issues. They’re still not a dominant team, but they’re playing with more structure, the top line is putting the puck in the net more consistently, and they’re not giving up 40 shots per game anymore. Now, the Canucks need their goaltenders to start stealing some games.

Demko has had a few occasions where he’s looked close to the standard he set in the playoffs last year against the Vegas Golden Knights, but at other times he’s looked off his angles or had trouble tracking the puck. He has an .895 save percentage at the moment, 31st among goaltenders with at least five starts.

Holtby has been even worse. His .885 save percentage is 38th among the 45 goaltenders with at least five starts.

Diving into advanced statistics, it doesn't look any better for Demko or Holtby. Looking at Top Down Hockey's Goals Saved Above Expectations (GSAx) metric, which made an appearance on Sportsnet on Monday, Demko is 33rd in the NHL at -1.99 GSAx, indicating he's allowed two more goals than you would expect from an average NHL goaltender facing the same quality and quantity of shots.

Holtby is at 45th in the NHL at -5.23 GSAx.

Like Demko, it’s not entirely Holtby’s fault. The team was dreadful defensively in front of him to start the season, but he’s had his own struggles, particularly with rebound control. It doesn’t help that he’s still adjusting to changes asked of him by goaltending coach Ian Clark, who he’s had limited time to work with given the Canucks’ crammed schedule to start the season.

Still, Holtby believes that his work with Clark will pay off long-term.

"Focus on the process."

“Yeah, it’s been really good,” said Holtby of working with Clark. “Obviously, it hasn’t been showing with the way the season’s went, but a lot of the stuff that we’ve been trying to do is showing. That stuff, you’ve just got to work at it over and over again until it becomes second nature. 

“In a season like this, it’s even more important to keep pushing forward and not get too emotionally involved with outcomes too much and keep reminding yourself to focus on the process.”

While that’s absolutely true — good process will ultimately lead to good results — the Canucks could sure use some positive outcomes, and soon.

“This season’s strange,” said Holtby. “You don’t have a lot of time to fix things, it can kind of snowball out of your hands pretty quick.”

If the bar for the playoffs in the all-Canadian North Division is around 62 points, the Canucks will need 47 points in their remaining 37 games. That’s a points percentage of .635 — the Canucks are currently at .395 — and a record like 23-13-1 or 20-10-7. Given the way the team is playing, that’s a tall order and likely only one they can reach if their goaltenders start stealing some wins.