As competitive as they come and still soaked in sweat after delivering a first-star performance, Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom bristled at a suggestion that he might have been too tired to start both ends of a back-to-back set.
“I didn’t play yesterday,” he replied, a pointed criticism of his work the previous evening. “So I could show up today. That was good.”
Markstrom didn’t just show up Wednesday in Winnipeg.
He showed off, racking up 34 saves and allowing just one puck to slip behind him as he backstopped the Flames to a crucial triumph over the Jets, the team they’re desperately trying to track down in the wildcard race. They’re now even in points, with 89, although the Friendly Manitobans hold the tiebreaker and have one game in hand.
Markstrom wasn’t exaggerating when he described this head-to-head showdown at Canada Life Centre as “a must must-win” for the Flames. He didn’t necessarily steal two points — his pals also deserve credit for a sharp and spirited effort — but he needed to be Calgary’s best-of-bunch and absolutely answered that bell.
“You could say he won us the game, for sure,” said winger Walker Duehr, who notched the go-ahead goal on a third-period wraparound. “He was amazing tonight.”
By the time Markstrom had ditched his mask and peeled off his chest protector for a post-game interview with Sportsnet, he was already thinking a few nights into the future, ahead to Saturday’s massive matchup with the Canucks in Vancouver (8 p.m. MT, CBC/Sportsnet 960 The Fan). Because, as he put it: “Now, that most important game is going to be our next game.”
As the Flames try to complete this improbable climb, almost certainly needing to win their final three in this quest to snare the last wildcard berth in the Western Conference, No. 25 is the most important dude on the roster.
Earlier this week, when Darryl Sutter first hinted that Markstrom would work both halves of a home-and-road back-to-back, he reasoned: “When it’s Game 7, you want your ace.”
At this point, they’re all Game 7s, so there’s no question who will be between the pipes for the visitors at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
After too many tough nights, Markstrom would shoulder a chunk of the blame for a Flames’ playoff miss. Down to the short strokes on the schedule, however, the 33-year-old Swede could still be a big reason why they sneak in.
“He has been great down the stretch,” praised Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane, heating up himself with tallies in three of the past five outings. “We have three more games, and we’re going to need him for all three of those. He’s a big part of our team, and we’re happy to see how he’s playing right now.”
While Markstrom wasn’t to blame for Tuesday’s deflating loss to the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks, he also wasn’t able to bail out his buddies, who were coughing up pucks like the Easter Bunny hands out chocolate eggs. He allowed four on 23 attempts. Nonetheless, Sutter stuck with him in Winnipeg, and it proved to be a wise decision.
Markstrom stuffed Pierre-Luc Dubois on an odd-man rush (this was before he was penalized for squirting him with a water-bottle), made a couple of sprawling saves on Josh Morrissey and slammed the door on a sharp-angle shot from Mark Scheifele. With less than two minutes remaining, he denied Nikolaj Ehlers on a breakaway.
“Marky has been a rock for us for … We’re into six weeks of it now,” Sutter reminded after Wednesday’s win.
They need this upcoming week to be his best.
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After Saturday’s clash with against Canucks, they’ll wrap their 82-game slate with a pair of home dates — Monday’s meeting with the Nashville Predators, another wildcard wannabe, and Wednesday’s capper against the San Jose Sharks.
The Jets’ four remaining opponents are the Predators, the Sharks, the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s obviously big to come into this building — it’s a tough place to play — and get away with the win,” Markstrom said after his superb showing Wednesday. “A big win, but we have to keep it going here.”
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