Some NHL teams don’t even have one reliable goaltender, like the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, or Los Angeles Kings. The Canucks are in the enviable position of having two.
The obvious number one is Jacob Markstrom, who represented the Canucks at the All-Star Game. Last season’s Canucks MVP is having another MVP-caliber season, making enormous saves to keep the Canucks in games, like the incredibly acrobatic two-pad stack save he made on Kevin Labanc in San Jose.
By a host of measures, Markstrom has become a top-10 goaltender in the NHL, with Brian Burke even suggesting that he deserves buzz for the Vezina.
“You’ve gotta start talking Vezina here at some point for this guy,” said Burke. “He’s been unreal. He’s been lights out.”
Behind Markstrom, Thatcher Demko has been nearly as good. While he’s had a few shaky outings this season, most nights that he steps between the pipes, he gives the Canucks a chance to win. He’s been particularly good on home ice, where he has yet to lose in regulation, with a 6-0-1 record and a .918 save percentage.
He was at his best on Monday night against the St. Louis Blues. Demko faced 38 shots from the defending Stanley Cup Champions and made 37 saves, including a stunning goal-line pad save on Jaden Schwartz.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat knows the team is blessed to be in this situation with their goaltenders.
“We're so lucky and so fortunate that way,” said Horvat, “that we got two goaltenders that we trust, and that can come up huge in big moments and make key saves for us. We're lucky to have both of them.”
As the Canucks face the final 31 games of the season, this dynamic duo in net presents an opportunity most teams don’t get: they can make sure their number one goaltender is well-rested heading into the playoffs.
The last two seasons, Markstrom has played 60 games. He’s been the Canucks’ workhorse both seasons, right to the bitter end. That’s the thing: those seasons ended with the conclusion of the regular season.
This year, the Canucks have eyes on playing past the end of the regular season, where a more-rested Markstrom could be the difference between a short playoff run and a long one.
Back-to-back starts for Demko before and after the All-Star break mean Markstrom is only on-pace for 56 starts this season, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Canucks’ coaching staff turn to Markstrom more and more as the season progresses, putting more faith in their number one goaltender for key games. March, in particular, looks like it will be a grinder, with 16 games, including four back-to-backs.
It will be essential that they get Markstrom more rest, because in recent years, a well-rested number one goaltender has been a key component of playoff success.
Just two of the last 12 Stanley Cups were raised by goaltenders that had played 60-plus games during the regular season. More than half of those Cups were raised by a goaltender that played fewer than 50 games during the regular season.
The fewest regular season games played for a Cup-winning goaltender in those dozen seasons belonged to Matt Murray, who played in just 13 games for the Penguins before suiting up in the postseason. Murray was a fresh-faced rookie at the time, as was Cam Ward in 2006, when he played 28 games during the regular season before a run to the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Then there was Jordan Binnington with the St. Louis Blues last season, another rookie, who played 32 games in the regular season.
It’s not just rookies, of course. Antti Niemi won the Cup in 2010 after playing just 39 regular season games. Chris Osgood won in 2008 after 43. It just seems like one potential ingredient to winning a Stanley Cup is a goaltender that doesn’t get worn down by the grind of the playoffs because they’ve been worn down by the grind of the regular season.
Consider this: on average, over the last dozen seasons since the 2005 lockout, 12 to 13 goaltenders have played at least 60 games in a season. These are some of the best goaltenders in the NHL, true workhorse starters that can carry a team all season and, presumably, carry them deep into the playoffs.
That includes those two seasons from Jacob Markstrom, as well as seven seasons from Roberto Luongo, four of them with the Canucks, such as the whopping 76 games he played in 2006-07. That ties for fifth-most games played by a goaltender in a season since the lockout.
Canucks fans will likely remember how that season ended. Luongo was brilliant in the playoffs, keeping the team in every game, with six of the 12 games going to overtime. But the lasting memory will be Luongo making a mental error, appealing to the referee for a penalty on a hit on Jannik Hansen while Scott Niedermayer snuck a shot past him from the point.
Perhaps if Luongo had played fewer games that season and was more well-rested, he would have been less fatigued and wouldn’t have made that mental error.
In any case, in just two of the 152 cases where a goaltender played 60-plus games in the regular season over the last dozen years — in just two of those cases, that goaltender went on to win the Cup.
Even the two Cups won by goaltenders that played at least 60 games during the regular season deserve an asterisk. One was Marc-Andre Fleury in 2009 and he had a .908 save percentage in the playoffs, 11th among the 16 starters that played at least four games. He was a lot better in the previous playoffs, with a .933 save percentage; maybe it helped that he played just 35 games in the regular season that year.
As for 2009, it helps that Evgeni Malkin had a whopping 36 points in 24 games — the most points in a single playoff run since the 2005 lockout — while Sidney Crosby was right behind him with 31, the second-most until Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied 32 points in 2018.
Hell, Malkin’s 36 points stands as the seventh-most points in the playoffs all-time and the most since Wayne Gretzky in 1993. It’s fairly safe to say that Fleury wasn’t exactly the key reason the Penguins won the Cup that year, his last-second save in Game 7 of the Final notwithstanding.
The other goaltender to win a Cup after playing 60-plus games during the regular season was Jonathan Quick in 2012. His opponent was the 39-year-old Martin Brodeur, who had played 59 games during the regular season. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest the 26-year-old Quick might have been less fatigued than the ancient-as-hell (in hockey terms) Brodeur.
Obviously, there’s more going on in these series than which goaltender played a few more games during the regular season. But in the playoffs, you look for every edge you can find.
For the Canucks, that edge might be the ability to give Markstrom a little more rest than the starting goaltender of whoever they might face in the playoffs. That rest would also give Markstrom a little more time to work with goaltending coach Ian Clark between games and refine his game even further.
With a goaltender at the top of his game, who knows how far the Canucks could go?