Goalies' readiness might be a wild card in NHL's return

Practices and scrimmages can help most NHL players find their legs and sharpen their skills, but are they enough for a goaltender to find his game?

Canucks' Jacob Markstrom acknowledges game play is key in preparation

Vancouver Canucks goaltende Jacob Markstrom, right, hasn't played since February because of injury and the pandemic pause. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

During normal times Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom would be heading into his first playoff experience riding the confidence of a just completed NHL regular season.

Of course, these times are far from normal.

Instead of spring cherry blossoms, Vancouver is experiencing July heat. Instead of planning trips to the beach, the Canucks are in the second week of a training camp, preparing for a trip to Edmonton for the NHL's Stanley Cup tournament.

When the Canucks open their best-of-five play-in series against the Minnesota Wild Aug. 2, Markstrom will have gone more than five months without playing an NHL game that matters.

"It's been a long break," Markstrom said recently. "Coming back (it's) different circumstances than it usually would have been ... but at the same time we want to keep building on what we started during the season."

Markstrom's play, especially in the abbreviated opening-round series, will determine whether the Canucks advance in the playoffs. Practices and scrimmages can help other players find their legs and sharpen their skills, but are they enough for a goaltender to find his game?

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"It's tough because it's not games," said the native of Gavle, Sweden, who will be making his first playoff appearance at the age of 30. "You have your team shoot at you every day. You know where they are shooting instead of getting a read."

Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch said goaltending will be the story of the opening round. The goalies who adapt quickest to the new normal will be the ones who carry their teams to the next series.

"This is a different animal than what any of us have ever seen before," said Hirsch, who played 108 NHL games with four teams and is now part of the Canucks' radio broadcast crew. "Some guys will just feel it right away and then other guys are going to struggle.

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"I truly think it's going to be between the ears, and the guys that can get going right away and feel it right away."

Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins said a short training camp, followed by an intense playoff format which could see the winning team playing 33 games before hoisting the Stanley Cup, will result in goalies getting hurt.

"You lay off for four months and go right to playoff hockey, there could always be some injuries, nagging injuries, that are going happen with groins or hips," said Rask, who is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy along with Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck.

Hirsch said goaltenders will have little room for error in the first round.

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"The first period of every game is going to be crucial because you want to get some shots, you want to get into the game, you want to feel the puck," he said. "If a guy gets behind the eight ball right way, he could be battling for the rest of that game. In a five-game series, one bad game can lose you the series."

When the NHL paused the season on March 12 due to the COVID-19 virus, Markstrom had already missed eight games after knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He also missed games during the season to return to Sweden to deal with the death of his father due to cancer.

In the 43 games Markstrom played, he had a 23-16-4 record, a 2.75 goals-against average and a career-high .918 save percentage.

"It's a new and different situation for everybody," he said about returning to play. "No one has been in this situation before. You have to spend more time on the ice. You have to do more work than you usually have in a normal season when you come back."

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Markstrom was drafted 31st overall by the Florida Panthers in 2008 and has waited 12 years for his first taste of the NHL post-season.

"It's exciting for sure," he said. "This is the games you want to play. It's a long grind over the course of a season. To be able to go out and get some playoff experience I've been missing that and looking for to that for a long time."

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