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Canucks weigh opponent's style when choosing goalie

Vancouver considers matchup issues in picking its starter

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- First-year Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green raised a few eyebrows when he said matchups can factor into his choice of goaltender, just as they do for which skaters he chooses for the lineup.

It is common practice for coaches to swap out defensemen and forwards in seeking a more skilled or heavier lineup to counter the strengths or exploit the weaknesses of the opposition.

Few have admitted to matching goalies against opponents based on style considerations.

"I'm not going to go into why, or how, we make those decisions, but there is some value to that," Green said of the thought process used in choosing whether Jacob Markstrom or Anders Nilsson gets the start.

The Canucks are not choosing their starting goalie based exclusively on the offensive tendencies of their opponent. Despite each being 6-foot-6 and trying to establish himself as a No.1 goalie at 27 years old, Nilsson and Markstrom have significant style differences that are being considered as contributing factors in the decision-making process.

Green, who coached in the American Hockey League for four seasons before joining Vancouver, says he talks regularly with goaltending coach Dan Cloutier to get a feel for what his options are and how they relate to an opponent.

"I don't proclaim to be a goalie coach, I don't know exactly how to stop the puck, but I love the goalies that can stop a lot of pucks and he has more knowledge than I do," said Green, who scored 193 goals in 970 NHL games as a forward. "I do go with my gut sometimes, but [Cloutier] has a big input on it for sure, and I trust him a lot."

What the Canucks do deviates from the win-and-you're-in mentality that dominates at many levels. But it is not unprecedented.

In 2006-07, the San Jose Sharks rotated between Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala each game, and each had near-identical stats until Toskala was injured in mid-February. Nabokov and Toskala, however, had very similar playing styles.

Markstrom and Nilsson have different approaches to stopping the puck that belie the similarities others draw between them.

Markstrom is the more active of the two, willing to push out past the edges of his crease to challenge opposing shooters and rely on his impressive lateral speed and side-to-side recovery slides to make up the distance when scrambling the other way on a backdoor play or rebound. It's made for some dramatic saves through eight starts this season, but that extra movement can also open holes for pucks to trickle through.

Nilsson is noticeably more conservative, staying deeper in his crease and using his broader frame to shift into pucks rather than reaching with his limbs, forcing shooters to pick corners around him but rarely opening holes that can lead to shots through him.

Video: VAN@MIN: Nilsson stones Zucker's wraparound

Their individual strengths and weaknesses can leave them vulnerable to specific styles of attack.

When the road-weary Canucks wrapped up a five-game trip against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 24, looking to play a tight-checking, low-event game, the more compact, conservative Nilsson was the choice, even though he'd been pulled after giving up four goals on 17 shots in 10:40 against the Boston Bruins in his previous start. The fact that Markstrom won the two previous games before the Wild game was not the deciding factor.

Nilsson responded by stopping all 29 shots he faced in a 1-0 victory, his second shutout in his four starts. Two days later, he was in goal again, this time against a more skilled, more attacking group from the Washington Capitals. It was a matchup that seemed to favor Markstrom's style, but Nilsson stopped 27 of 29 shots in a 6-2 win.

Nilsson did not make a third straight start though. Markstrom was back in against the Dallas Stars in the next game as his more explosive lateral movement could counter a potent attack that stresses rapid puck movement in the attacking zone.

The strengths and weaknesses of each goalie are not the only factor in who starts.

The decision to start Nilsson in Minnesota likely included signs Markstrom might need extra practice time with Cloutier to tighten up a few technical aspects. Often, as a goalie evolves into a No. 1 role, he loses some of his base because of the diminished practice time available. A balance between managing rest and managing the finer details in his game between starts becomes more difficult.

If Nilsson continues to have a .943 save percentage and Markstrom remains at .916, closer to the NHL average (.910 this season), the balance in starts may shift more in Nilsson's favor, regardless of style factors.

In the meantime, it's refreshing to see the Canucks considering the way each goalie plays, as well as how well they're playing, in making decisions and not relying on the traditional win-and-you're-in or starter-backup conventions that dominate conversations about goaltending usage.

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