Spencer Martin had been waiting a very long time to play in the NHL again — nearly five years, in fact.
The 26-year-old goalie finally got his chance Friday when he made his debut for the COVID-stricken Vancouver Canucks and stopped 33 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers.
“I just felt incredibly blessed knowing how hard it is to get to this level and how many experiences (it takes) to get opportunities,” he said. “But it felt incredible to get an opportunity.”
Martin was pressed into action after Vancouver’s star goalie Thatcher Demko was placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol on Thursday. Backup netminder Jaroslav Halak was also out after testing positive for the virus last week.
Heading into Friday’s contest, Martin had played just three NHL games (0-2-1), all for the Colorado Avalanche in 2017.
The native of Oakville, Ont., has split this season between Vancouver’s taxi squad and the Abbotsford Canucks of the American Hockey League, where he has a 5-0-2 record with a .921 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.
Martin admitted he’d wondered if he’d ever start in an NHL game again, but was excited to get the chance on Friday.
“I wasn’t as amped up as I thought I’d be given how much it meant to me to get a game,” he said. “But (the rest of the team) really kept it simple from a goalie standpoint so they made it easy for me.”
After years behind the bench in the AHL, Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau knows what kind of talent exists in the minors.
“I love when American League players that have played there for a while get opportunities and show what they can do. Because a lot of times, there’s a lot of good players that get overlooked because of their age or for whatever reason and they’re really good players,” he said.
“For Spencer to come in and play a game like that against — I think they’re the highest-scoring team in the league — I thought it was really impressive.”
COVID also left the Canucks’ forward ranks depleted Friday, with Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Conor Garland also in protocol.
To earn a point against one of the NHL’s top teams under trying circumstances is important for the Canucks, Boudreau said.
“I hope it gives them belief that when you play the right way — and we played the right way tonight — that you can play with anybody,” he said. “That’s pretty well what the message is. We played a hungry team tonight.”
Aleksander Barkov scored the shootout winner, skating in with speed and sliding a one-handed backhand shot past Martin from the top of the crease. Anton Lindell also scored for the Panthers (28-8-5) in the shootout.
Florida’s Sam Reinhart forced extra time with a power-play goal early in the third period and Alex Chiasson had the lone tally for Vancouver (18-18-4).
Spencer Knight had 27 saves for the Panthers, who were on the second night of back-to-back games after handing the Edmonton Oilers a 6-0 drubbing on Thursday.
Friday’s victory took the entire team, Knight said.
“We have to stick together, stick with it,” he said. “Not scoring can be frustrating and staying with it, and then just waiting for a chance and that’s’ the way it is sometimes. We’re not going to score five goals every night. We’ve got to find a different ways to win.”
Vancouver was playing its first game at home since Dec. 14 due to COVID-19 outbreaks around the league and postponements due to capacity restrictions. The crowd at Rogers Arena was limited to 50 per cent by provincial health orders.
Florida dominated overtime, penning the Canucks in their own end and forcing Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Juho Lahmmikko and Matthew Highmore to stay out on the ice for three minutes and 14 seconds.
The home side held the Panthers off the scoresheet for two periods before coughing up a power-play goal early in the third.
Vancouver’s Nils Hoglander was called for tripping Brandon Montour just 27 seconds into the period and Florida applied pressure with the man advantage.
Anthony Duclair threw a puck to the front of the net and Reinhart, stationed at the top of the crease, batted in a backhanded shot to make it 1-1 at the 1:41 mark.
“(Reinhart’s) such a big part of our team and such an important piece that we can move him around all over and he’s been really good on the power play,” said Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette.
“The power play has been really good of late and that was a huge goal for us because you get in those games where you get the goaltender on the other side that it’s his first start and he’s feeling it, and we’re having trouble really getting anything by him, so it was a huge goal at the right time.”
Florida was 1 for 2 on the power play and Vancouver went 1 for 4.
The Canucks opened the scoring 16:18 into the game.
With Owen Tippett in the box for slashing, Quinn Hughes launched a rocket from the point. Tanner Pearson tipped the shot and the puck caught Chiasson on this hip before pinging off the cross bar and in.
The goal drew chants of “Bruce, there it is!” to the tune of Tag Team’s rap classic “Whoomp! (There It Is).” The chants have been a staple at games in Vancouver since Bruce Boudreau was installed as the team’s head coach on Dec. 5.
One of Martin’s biggest stops on Friday came on a Florida power play midway through the first period.
Reinhart rang a shot off the post, sending the puck soaring across the goalmouth to Barkov on the other side of the crease. The centre wound up and unleashed a rocket but Martin slid into position and made the pad stop.
The Canucks will continue their homestand Sunday when they host the St. Louis Blues. The Panthers will face the Kraken in Seattle the same night.
NOTES: The Panthers trounced the Canucks 5-2 on Jan. 11. … The visitors were without Sam Bennett, who suffered a lower-body injury in Florida’s victory over the Oilers on Thursday. … Martin’s first game for the Canucks came exactly five years after he made his NHL debut with the Avs.
THE CANADIAN PRESS