Jacob Markstrom dug his left skate blade into the ice, pushed across the crease, stuck out his right pad and made a save for the Vancouver Canucks.
It changed everything for them during their 4-3 win against the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Wednesday.
“That save was big,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “You could feel it even on the bench.”
The save came at 8:27 of the second period. The Canucks were down 3-1 and Blues forward Robert Thomas seemed primed to make it a three-goal lead. But Markstrom, with his strong push and perfectly positioned pad, kept Thomas from scoring.
The Canucks scored the next three goals in a span of 6:23 to win the game and put them in a position to win the series in Game 6 in Edmonton, the West hub city, on Friday (9:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, FS-MW).
If the Canucks go on to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions, Markstrom’s save on Thomas could be remembered as the turning point.
“Every once in a while there’s a save where on the bench someone will say, ‘That’s the one we need,'” Green said. “That was one of those moments where you know you got a big save, that might have been the one that kept you in the game and you’ve got to push. I thought our guys responded off that save well.”
The Canucks responded by playing their best 30 minutes of the series, a stretch that should give them confidence, especially considering the play of their goalie, that they can eliminate the Blues on Friday.
Markstrom, playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, is showing the poise of an experienced postseason goalie, especially after back-to-back losses in Games 3 and 4 of the series where he allowed a total of six goals.
“You’ve got to just stick with it,” Markstrom said. “I’ve been feeling really good with my game but not getting the result that I wanted. There have been goals scored that are fluky, but those are playoff goals. You’ve got to throw it toward the net and the puck might bounce in. I feel like we’ve been getting a couple of those go against me, but you’ve got to stick with the program, your system, and keep believing what you’re doing is the right thing, believing in yourself.”
Markstrom’s belief in himself is spearheading his confidence. It’s becoming more and more evident with each passing postseason game.
“With Marky, this doesn’t surprise us,” Green said. “I’ve been with Marky a long time and just because it’s the playoffs … we’re confident in him.”
It’s been a long time coming for Markstrom, a 30-year-old who played 272 regular-season games before getting his first chance in the postseason. That came in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Minnesota Wild on Aug. 2.
His performance in that best-of-5 series was good enough for the Canucks to advance in four games, but it would be a stretch to characterize it as game-changing, except for his 27-save shutout in Game 3.
Markstrom allowed four goals in Game 4, including three on sharp-angled shots on the short side while in the RVH position, a save selection that has the goalie drop to one knee with his short-side pad against the post and the other pad slightly off the ice so the skate edge of the back leg can drive a goalie into the post and up toward the crossbar. Markstrom didn’t allow any goals on those kind of sharp-angle shots during the regular season.
The Canucks, however, won 5-4 to advance.
He had a .926 save percentage in four games against the Wild, which served as a prelude to what he has done against the Blues in the face of relentless pressure.
Markstrom has faced 193 shots in five games, an average of 38.6 per game, and he’s stopped 179 for a .927 save percentage.
He made 36 saves on 39 shots in Game 5, including 18 straight to close the game after Zach Sanford beat him on the short side to give St. Louis a 3-1 lead at 5:51 of the second period.
Markstrom’s most spectacular save was on Jacob de la Rose 2:35 into the second period, when he dove back into the crease and made a blocker stop to keep it a 2-1 game.
He made a left pad save on David Perron‘s wraparound attempt with 27 seconds left in the second period, after the Canucks had gone ahead 4-3. In the third he preserved that lead with a stop on Tyler Bozak on a one-timer off the rush at 8:27. He gloved a point-blank shot from Sammy Blais at 15:47 and made back-to-back saves on Alex Pietrangelo and Bozak with less than 2:30 remaining, the first with his left pad and then with his stick on the rebound.
But it was the save on Thomas that kept the Blues from possibly putting the game away.
“Markstrom outcompeted us on some plays,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “I thought we had goals. He was down and out but we didn’t elevate it, didn’t put it in. Those saves rally a team, they give them confidence and they demoralize our team.”
That much was clear in Game 5. The Canucks have no reason to believe Markstrom can’t be the difference again in Game 6, the reason why they move on to the second round and eliminate the defending champs.
“I don’t think that’s a big deal,” Green said. “He’s mature enough to handle this time of the year.”