CALGARY — The national anthems played at the Saddledome and Dan Vladar still couldn’t believe he was starting. Vladar genuinely thought it was a joke until then. He had taken extra reps after morning skate hours earlier and was prepared to sit behind his battery mate Jacob Markstrom. Instead, Vladar’s emergency backup was a 32-year-old named Dustin Nickel who hadn’t played a meaningful game since 2012 with the Mount Royal College Cougars. He runs a construction company and even works as a goalie coach.
Even if Vladar knew deep down that he had to be ready for anything — playing two seasons for Darryl Sutter will do that to you — Vladar had no idea about what he was in for before puck drop.
“I was just trying to give our team a chance to win like I’m trying to do every single game,” Vladar said. “Obviously it turned out to, probably, be my best game this season.”
With respect to Vladar, obviously is not the word that everyone else would have used. The circumstances could have had so many others fold under pressure. But it was he who emerged victorious with a 27-save performance in a 2-1 overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night, highlighting one of the few things that haven’t gone completely wrong for the Calgary Flames this year — their goaltending.
Vladar made a handful of key saves in crucial moments to keep his team in it against the reigning Cup champions. His performance overshadowed a handful of other storylines: Nickel crossing an item off his bucket list, a solid performance from A.J. Greer who tied the game and MacKenzie Weegar’s overtime heroics.
“I thought Danny Boy stepped up there big,” Weegar said. “He really bailed us out a few times there.”
So, why was Vladar in this spot? And why did the Flames rely on another goalie named Dustin to back him up? Let’s rewind for a moment.
At 4:45 p.m. local time, Vladar was sent a text by Flames goaltending coach Jason LaBarbera. There was a possibility that he’d start after Jacob Markstrom fell ill. Because it was only determined after 5 p.m. that Markstrom couldn’t play, leading him to drive home from the rink, the Flames had missed the roster transaction deadline that would’ve allowed them to call up much-hyped prospect Dustin Wolf from their farm team. At 5:30 p.m., Nickel got the text from LaBarbera that he’d be dressing. He had enough time to text his dad that he’d be dressing before shutting his phone off.
“You don’t like seeing Marky have an illness,” Weegar said. “But we’ve got all the faith in Danny. Since I’ve been here, he’s been awesome for us. In that part of it, we weren’t too worried because we have a great second goalie to come in there. But the morale goes up when you see Dusty come in. The smiles get picked up. You’re making it a special night for him.”
Mind you, Nickel isn’t an unfamiliar face to the Flames as he normally hangs around the dome just in case an EBUG is needed. He even practices with the Flames when one of their goalies needs a day off. Nickel even tore his groin during a practice last year.
But on this day, he was needed to back up Vladar. Thirty minutes after getting the text — the first thing he saw after a midday nap — he arrived at the rink to sign his amateur tryout agreement. Nickel didn’t have himself a hearty dinner ahead of the game.
“I had a banana,” Nickel said.
By 7 p.m. local, he was on the ice taking in as much of the atmosphere as he could while taking stretches and shots from his teammates. It was all good for Nickel until he skated along the boards and accidentally ran into captain Mikael Backlund.
“My goal is to try to stay out of everybody’s way as much as possible and I didn’t succeed at that I guess,” Nickel said.
Meanwhile, Vladar had three close calls of his own during the game where the EBUG watch was on high alert. Golden Knights forward William Carrier fell into Vladar moments into the first period. Vladar had his helmet knocked off later on. Even Weegar barreled into Vladar later in the game. All three times, Vladar got up and continued to play.
“I felt like a football player out there,” Vladar said. “It gets you going a little too when you get in some contact as well.”
Some fans, unaware of the 5 p.m. rule, were confused as to why Nickel and not Wolf would be in that backup situation. Granted, some fans would have wanted Wolf on the ice anyway. We don’t need to list all of his accomplishments. We know he’s proven so much at the junior and American League level. Even the Flames know it. But opportunities have been hard to come by at the NHL level for Wolf this year, just getting the one start against the Ottawa Senators. Some fans feel that he’s still a better alternative to Vladar, especially when looking at Vladar’s NHL statistics.
Before Monday’s game, Vladar was listed among MoneyPuck’s worst goalies, thanks to the Goals Saved Above Expected metric. The list includes the 10 worst goalies in the league, featuring names like Stuart Skinner, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Juuse Saros. Vladar only had one game where he finished with a save percentage over .900. Until his win on Monday night saw him finish with a .968 save percentage.
Does Vladar’s numbers need to be better? Absolutely. Were there some goals that Vladar should have saved? Yes. But those numbers fail to account for a Flames team that struggled defensively as they adjusted to a new defensive system. They also don’t account for an offence that may be finding its footing at five-on-five but is still struggling to score on the power play. Markstrom’s numbers could be better too with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. But he has made great saves when called upon and is more reliable than the 2022-23 version of himself that would allow goals on the first shots of games.
Flames fans need to ask themselves the question and be honest with themselves. How many more wins would Dustin Wolf give this Flames team? With this team in front of him, it would take a lot for him to be that much better than Vladar or Markstrom. It’s no guarantee that he would be their answer anyway. Although we only have one game as a sample size. In any case, goaltending is not high on the Flames’ list of concerns. It certainly wasn’t on Monday night.
To be fair the Flames’ defence had their moments against Vegas by limiting their chances. But they still committed costly turnovers that should’ve buried them. Weegar himself had an offensive turnover that led to an Ivan Barbashev breakaway. Vladar was there to stop it. But even as Vladar was the star of the game, he still gave credit to the team in front of him.
“It’s not easy coming back from a long road trip, especially playing against the Stanley Cup champions,” Vladar said. “But I think the guys were doing an awesome job. I didn’t have to make any rebound saves. They were just clearing out pucks in front of me and boxing out as well. We deserved to win today.”
For Flames fans who wanted to see an EBUG, they did not get their wish. But at least Nickel had himself the time of his life.
“It’s special, it’s such a cool opportunity to be here,” Nickel said. “Every kid’s dream is to play in the NHL. If this is what it is, the opportunity to come out here and do that and be around the guys and skate with them? (It’s) just super special.”
But those fans can leave Monday night’s game affirmed of one thing, the Flames’ goaltending isn’t the same Achilles’ heel it was last season. If the Flames continue to improve as that goaltending remains steady, the team can at least hang on to those positives as they push through a gruelling part of their schedule.
“You’re seeing a team that is blocking out a lot of the stuff outside of this rink, outside of this team,” Weegar said. “You’re seeing everybody step up. We’ve got depth going up and down the lineup. And a team that doesn’t give up. This team, when we face adversity, we step up. We take it on. We’ve done a great job getting these comeback wins against great hockey teams. I think there’s nights where you want to play with the lead. But right now, we’re going to take these two points. It’s hard to win in this league and we’re going to take these.”
(Top photo of Dan Vladar: Sergei Belski / USA Today)