Heading into Thursday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Jacob Markstrom was on fire. He had a superb .954 save percentage in his last three starts, including a brilliant 49-save effort against the Los Angeles Kings.
One of the few goaltenders who could rival his hot streak was the Blackhawks’ Robin Lehner, who was coming off a 41-save win over the Calgary Flames. In his last three starts, Lehner had a .940 save percentage, leading the Blackhawks to a three-game winning streak.
This game was setting up to be a fantastic goaltending duel between two players at the top of their game, a peerless demonstration of puck-stopping excellence. So, of course, the two teams combined for 12 goals.
That’s as many goals as Markstrom and Lehner gave up in their last three starts combined. It’s like their minds were momentarily taken over by 80’s goaltenders, as evidenced by the very old-school two-pad stack save that Lehner made in the final minutes of the third period.
Hockey, particularly on a game-by-game basis, is hilariously unpredictable. That little black rubber disk has a tendency to take weird hops and bounces at inopportune moments, rendering the finely-tuned reflexes of elite athletes completely useless.
We shouldn’t be astonished when a goaltender gives up 5 or 6 goals in a game; we should be astonished when they don’t. Goaltenders sometimes go through an entire game and don’t allow a single goal. Many of these goaltenders do this multiple times in a season! That is dumbfounding.
Really, I saw two completely normal and understandable goaltending performances when I watched this game.
- Honestly, I thought both Markstrom and Lehner were fine. They both made some fantastic saves, and the goals that went in were weird bounces, savvy tips, and perfectly-placed shots. Markstrom was particularly sharp: he robbed John Quenneville on a 2-on-1 and stoned Dylan Strome at the top of the crease in the first, turned aside Patrick Kane from point blank range and sprawled out to stop Erik Gustafsson in the second, and also made some saves in the third period but I need to save some save descriptors for Lehner.
- Lehner was sharp at times too, particularly frustrating Brock Boeser, who had five shots on goal, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Boeser stung Lehner with two rising wrist shots that caught him in the collar bone, and Lehner charged out to rob a Boeser chance in the slot after a brutal turnover. If Boeser keeps shooting like that, eventually he’ll hit paydirt like Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but hopefully won’t get shot himself.
- The Canucks opened the scoring five minutes into a game and just two seconds after a penalty expired, so they technically didn’t improve on their 4th-ranked power play. It was a lovely play by Elias Pettersson, who used the threat of his shot to draw two penalty killers out of position, which opened up a shooting lane for Bo Horvat. His low, hard wrist shot was tipped in by J.T. Miller, who now has 15 goals, on-pace to hit 30 for the first time in his career.
- The Blackhawks responded in the first period after an Oscar Fantenberg turnover, moving the puck over to Connor “Dropkick” Murphy, whose shot appeared to deflect off Tim Schaller’s stick and beat Markstrom under the arm. Well, it appeared to hit Schaller’s stick; it definitely beat Markstrom.
- The first period was normal enough; the second period got bonkers. If the first period was a cat that had it all, in the second period it hit the wall and had to make a living downtown, walking to a brand new beat. Yeah, totally nuts.
- The reference in that last bullet point was so niche that someone displayed a vase in it.
- Jake Virtanen made a great play to kick off the scoring in the second period, picking off a reverse by Dennis Gilbert below the goal line. He banked the puck up to Alex Edler at the point, whose one-timer was tipped in by Tanner Pearson. Virtanen also darted to the front of the net looking for a tip, but like a waiter for a lousy restaurant customer, he didn’t get one.
- Then the Blackhawks took over the game for a while, scoring three-straight goals. One seemed to bank in off Adam Gaudette’s butt, another was a nigh-unstoppable one-timer by Patrick Kane on the power play, and the third was a centring pass that deflected in off Quinn Hughes’ leg. Markstrom, like a mute monk, had no chance.
- After the 4-2 goal, Travis Green called a crucial timeout to get the team to reset. They evidently needed to be reminded that it was just a two-goal deficit and they were still in this game. Literally, they were still in the game, it wasn’t an advanced VR simulation or one of those nightmares where you’re back at school and there’s a pop quiz you didn’t study for.
- As captain, Bo Horvat seemed to take it upon himself to lead the comeback. On the power play, he made slick zone entry to get the Canucks set up, then went to the front of the net to set up the screen in front of Lehner, who never saw Hughes’ slap shot from the point. Hughes’ shot took a straight line to the net — no deflections or tips — which is the fastest way between two points, unless you have an Infinite Improbability Drive
- Despite undeniably playing centre on his line, Elias Pettersson doesn’t take many faceoffs, with J.T. Miller taking the bulk of the draws. To wit, Pettersson took just one faceoff against the Blackhawks, but it led directly to a goal. Pettersson actually lost the faceoff, but Miller cleverly jumped ahead to steal the puck and pass it to Brock Boeser. Meanwhile, Pettersson shimmied his way into the high slot, where Boeser found him for a quick one-timer just inside the post.
- That tied the game 4-4 heading into the third period, where Horvat gave the Canucks a one-goal lead with an assist to absurdity. He burst down the right wing and threw a puck towards the net. Lehner kicked the puck out, but it went off Gilbert’s skate and in. It was the most unexpected appearance from a Gilbert since he and Sullivan popped up in Star Trek.
- Then Jonathan Toews cheated. As Patrick Kane carried the puck into the Canucks’ zone, Toews skated right into Hughes from behind, knocking him to the ice and preventing him from contesting Kane’s zone entry. It was blatant interference that somehow went uncalled, and Kane moved in 2-on-1 and beat Markstrom five-hole with a quick snap shot.
- Gaudette put the Canucks up for good-ette two minutes later, however, after Boeser and Miller won the puck on the forecheck. Miller slipped a pass through to Gaudette, who took advantage of an over-aggressive Zack Smith losing an edge to walk into the slot and let loose a dandy of a wrist shot just under the bar.
- Look, Lehner, I know you weren't happy with the Gaudette goal, but please don't slam your head into the ice like this. You're going to give yourself a concussion like Gus Frerotte.
- Lehner gave the Blackhawks a chance to tie the game up again when he robbed Miller with a two-pad stack on a shorthanded 2-on-1. It was outstanding.
- Finally, Horvat sealed the deal with an empty net goal, though it took two attempts. Ironically, he missed the empty net from the offensive zone, sending the puck wide on a backhand chance. From his own zone, under pressure, however, he gave himself one more chance and hit the empty net from distance.
It was a four-point night for Miller and three-point nights for Horvat, Pearson, and Pettersson, as the Canucks’ top-six delivered the offence they needed to combat the Blackhawks’ offensive outburst. Given the way Markstrom has repeatedly bailed out the Canucks this season, it was only fitting that they come through for him when the bounces didn’t go his way.