VANCOUVER -- For Vancouver Canucks goalie Eddie Lack, the mantra "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is more than a cliché or the lyrics of a pop song by Kelly Clarkson.
Lack has lived the lesson behind those words. Last season, he survived an all-out attack on his game and faced a litany of doubters about his ability to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. Neither was likely the intention of coach John Tortorella, but instead the result of Lack being thrown into the fire by starting 19 consecutive games during a 41-day span after Roberto Luongo was sent to the Florida Panthers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.
The heavy workload, combined with the fact Lack was a little more than one year removed from major hip surgery, caused his body and his game to disintegrate. His save percentage, which was .925 when the streak started Feb. 26, dropped to .900. When the streak ended with a loss to the Anaheim Ducks on April 7, Lack was too tired and too sore to accept an invitation to represent Sweden at the IIHF World Championship.
Now, almost exactly a year later, Lack finds himself in the same situation, asked to carry the starter's load and help the Canucks into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Ryan Miller sprained his knee Feb. 22. With 16 games remaining, the Canucks held a Western Conference wild card by three points.
So what has changed for Lack that might allow him to pull it off this time? He said he learned from last season's painful lessons and is a better athlete and goalie for it.
"I told myself, 'If you really want to play in this league and be a good goalie in this league you need to prepare the best you can,'" Lack said. "The biggest part about feeling good this year comes from my body feeling good. I'm not in pain. I don't have to stretch for half an hour just to be able to get on the ice in the first place."
Lack spent the summer rebuilding his body, moving personal trainer Lucas Fierro Smith into his cabin in Leksands, Sweden for two-a-day workouts on a suggestion made by teammate Ryan Kesler, who was traded to the Ducks in late June.
Lack has a .934 save percentage since replacing Miller, this despite a two-game, 10-goal hiccup early in the run. He is is 4-1-1 in his past six and has been named first star in three straight games, including Pacific Division wins against the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim to keep Vancouver in playoff position.
Lack knows questions remain about his durability. But he has appeared in eight straight games since Miller was sidelined and said he feels better than at any point this season.
If others are surprised by that declaration, Lack is not.
He said he feels the same way he did when he stepped back on the ice in July. The impact of a new offseason regimen, which included input from the Canucks strength and conditioning coaches and physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, who Lack worked with before the Canucks added him as a consultant at the start of this season, is undeniable, Lack said.
The regimen was put into motion by Tyler Gingras, a friend who trains Kesler in the offseason and works with Lack during the season. Lack flew Fierro Smith from Sweden to be part of the discussions with Celebrini and the Canucks human performance department about the next steps for the end of the season.
After settling on a plan, Lack returned to Leksands, where he played for three seasons before coming to North America.
"We took the parts we liked from everyone, put it into a program and got to work," Lack said. "We could be alone there and focus."
The results were evident on Lack's 6-foot-4 frame but difficult for the goalie to quantify. After some thought, Lack settled on "20 percent better" for his improved strength, but a better description was how he felt that first time back on the ice.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, this is how it's supposed to feel,'" Lack said.
Lack came back to North America early, stopping in Chicago to work with Stan Dubicki, his former American Hockey League goaltending coach. They worked almost exclusively on foot movement. In Vancouver, it was a few weeks of on-ice sessions with former Canucks goalie Alex Auld. They worked on fine-tuning the technical side of Lack's game.
The learning has continued throughout the season. Specifically, near daily sessions with Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson have helped drive home a fundamental change in Lack's game. Melanson took Lack's aggressive and retreating style and morphed it into a more patient, goal line-out approach reminiscent of the style played by Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
When Miller was injured, Lack came in confident. But after an impressive road victory against the Boston Bruins, he gave up five goals in a loss to the last-place Buffalo Sabres and five in a shootout win against the St. Louis Blues. A defense full of injury reinforcements from the AHL didn't help, but questions about Lack's readiness intensified.
"Obviously I had a little dip, and that is when I just told myself, 'This is nothing like last year, just keep playing, keep having fun and keep working hard in practice,'" Lack said. "I felt the problem was our travel meant no practices and just playing games, which is what happened last year too. Eventually that is going to catch up to you."
There were signs Lack's technical game had slipped, but unlike last season, he was provided the necessary time to correct the faults with Melanson. Jacob Markstrom, the backup, started March 3 against the Sharks, allowing Lack to recover from a physical pounding in Boston and spend extra time in practice without worrying he'd be too tired to play the game.
That plan was borne out of the lessons from last season. It also was quickly scrapped after Markstrom gave up three goals on four shots against San Jose and Lack's night off ended in less than eight minutes. He stopped 23 of 24 shots in relief and, despite staying late at the morning skate with Melanson to work on his game, Lack said he felt better than he had in a long time, that he "actually felt like myself again."
So rather than resting between games like last season, Lack figures he may be better off working through any technique issues without missing a start. With seven of the next nine games at home and breaks between all but the two road games, Lack is confident he can manage his rest and his game. He could start all nine games in that stretch.
"There's obviously a good time for rest, but I am just 27 years old and I don't think I need as much rest as I took last year," he said. "I feel better when I push myself a little more in practice, too, and not just think, 'There's a game tomorrow, you have to take it a bit easy.'"
In other words, what doesn't kill you really can make you stronger.