Canada's game of musical crease

Canada's crease has looked a bit like a revolving door, but maybe it'll all be for the best.

With just over three months to go until players take the ice in PyeongChang, it’s no surprise that folks have been paying extra attention to Team Canada’s netminders. What’s surprising is what they’ve been seeing ― and who they haven't.

In 16 contests before the 4 Nations Cup, Ann-Renée Desbiens played eight games and a period. Geneviève Lacasse played four full games, one third period, and two consecutive periods. Alternate Emerance Maschmeyer played one game, as did a teenage boy. Shannon Szabados played just 40 minutes.

Injury time

Based on gaps between appearances, it seems that Desbiens was unable to play during the opening weekend and that Lacasse faced some issues during the month of October. Prior to starting in Boston on Oct. 25, the 28-year-old Lacasse hadn’t seen game action since being replaced after two periods on Oct. 3. Desbiens has played significant minutes since, though, and Lacasse looked excellent in a 5-1 win over Team USA.

Much more glaring has been the absence of Szabados. Coach Laura Schuler said on Oct. 22 that they had “a goalie not feeling well,” and when asked specifically about Szabados, Hockey Canada wouldn’t give an update on her status ― Schuler wasn’t even given an opportunity to answer the question. The two-time Olympic champion started in Canada’s very first match of the Icebreaker Series but hasn’t so much as sat on the bench since the end of that game’s second period.

After six weeks out of the lineup, Szabados has traveled with the team to Tampa for the 4 Nations Cup. The secrecy surrounding whatever was keeping her out raised some red flags, but presumably if she is well enough to travel, things are improving. In the interim, the extra goalie spot made available by her absence created an interesting scenario for Canada's other netminders.

Ice time

From the third period of the Oct. 3 game until the Canada-USA match in Boston on Oct. 25, Desbiens started every game in net but two: one that Maschmeyer started, and a scrimmage where Team Alberta U16’s tandem tended both goals. For a 23-year-old who, prior to centralization, hadn’t played more than 10 minutes for the senior team since 2015, the extra ice time has been invaluable.

“It’s been awesome being able to play so many games in a row and then to get confidence,” she said of her heavy workload. “The past few games there [before Oct. 22] have been going really well, and I got a lot of confidence.”

Team Canada had a span of five games in seven days leading up the Quebec City bout, and Desbiens played in four of those. Team Alberta teenager Garin Bjorklund started the other, with no named back-up ― a move that raised some eyebrows.

“We play a lot of games, and I think it was just an opportunity for us to rest,” offered Desbiens. “It was a scrimmage, so there’s nothing for us to show.”

The scrimmage was one of two consecutive special-teams games, where specific shorthanded, power play, and 6-on-5 scenarios were pre-planned throughout the match. Desbiens backstopped Canada to a 10-4 win over Team Manitoba U16 in the first contest before sitting out the second.

“There’s a lot of 5-on-3 for a long time so there’s a lot of risk of injuries,” she explained. “So we took all that day off just to rest and get better and get ready to come [to Quebec].

“I’ve definitely never done a game like that where it’s already planned that you’re going to be five minutes on 5-on-3,” she added. “It’s different, and I think it’s hard to bring energy to those games. But that’s something that we need to work on because it’s going to make us better at the end of the day.”

Air time

With at least one, and often two, of the rostered goalies unavailable, Maschmeyer and fellow alternate Erica Howe have both spent significant time with Team Canada. Maschmeyer’s been with the group on four occasions: three in Calgary and one as third goaltender in Quebec City. Howe has also spent time in Calgary, and made the trip to Boston on Oct. 25. Though there’s no publicly accessible evidence that nonrostered netminders were ever called into centralization in past cycles, the pair’s involvement has been described as a rotation that I was told is “not unusual.”

Common or not, it’s meant a lot of traveling for the Quebec- and Ontario-based players.

“Luckily I’m used to that with playing for Calgary [in the CWHL] last year,” Maschmeyer quipped.

Still, it’s a strange position to be in.

“It’s a bit of a challenge, of course,” she said. “I take it one day at a time, and I’m just kind of ready for anything. It’s a little bit of an adjustment this year, just kind of being on call. I have to make sure that I’m staying on top of everything here [in Montreal] and then that way if I have to leave or whatever the situation, I feel prepared ― as much prepared as I can, I guess.”

Panic time?

Szabados is the only netminder of the five who’s played on Olympic ice, and the other four have a combined 11 games of World Championship experience. She’s also arguably the best goalie in the history of the sport.

She hasn't eased back into competition in the Esso Series, but Lacasse spent just two games on the bench before playing in Boston.

Whether or not Szabados starts during 4 Nations, with three months remaining before the Games and roughly two until the squad must be officially named, there’s plenty of time for recovery. It’s very possible that they’re simply taking it ― whatever it is ― slow so as not to chance things. Szabados would be far from the first Canadian player to miss large parts of centralization and return in time to perform well at the Olympics.

And if something goes wrong with any of the goalies before then (knock on wood) ... at least Canada’s staff will have had plenty of opportunity to evaluate its other options?

Canada plays Finland in a pre-tournament match on Nov. 5 and opens its 4 Nations Cup against Sweden on Nov. 7. Five international games in a week may be just what's needed to lift the veil of secrecy and allow viewers a glimpse of where each goalie stands.