VANCOUVER – Thatcher Demko’s dark start to the National Hockey League season turned black Thursday when the goalie was injured trying to rescue his collapsing team. It’s hard to see any light around the Vancouver Canucks now.
For the second straight home game, the Canucks were dull and leaden at the start, outskated and overrun by the Florida Panthers in a 5-1 loss at Rogers Arena. The Washington Capitals beat the Canucks by the same score on Tuesday, but this game was worse for Vancouver.
It was worse because there was no discernible boost in energy, emotion or cerebral function by the Canucks after the previous game, and because on Thursday they lost not only another lopsided contest but their starting goalie.
Demko hobbled off the ice with what appeared to be a significant leg injury with 47 seconds remaining in the first period after the Canucks surrendered three goals in 59 seconds to the Panthers. It was the fastest any National Hockey League team has surrendered three goals this season.
During the sequence in which he was hurt, Demko faced four straight, rapid-fire shots from four different Florida shooters, none of whom encountered much resistance from anyone in an opposing uniform. Demko could stop only the first three chances – the last of which he appeared to save AFTER suffering his right-leg injury – before Ryan Lomberg scored on the fourth shot as Vancouver defenceman Riley Stillman did the hokey pokey and turned himself around.
That goal made it 3-0.
It was such a grotesque defensive look for the Canucks that when Demko lay on the ice, it seemed possible initially that he was merely protesting the violation of his human rights by teammates. But it was soon clear he was seriously hurt, grabbing the back of his leg as if he had injured his hip or hamstring.
Canuck coach Bruce Boudreau offered no medical report after the game, but it appears the Vancouver starter is now Spencer Martin, the 27-year-old backup who spent the last seven seasons in the American Hockey League.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him; he’s played great for us,” Boudreau said. “But until I know what the situation is (with Demko), I don’t really want to say too much about it.
“The fact that he had to make four saves, I’m sure going left and right and left and right probably didn’t help any. He was doing his damnedest to try and stop them all and he almost did. All I saw was bam, bam, bam, bam.”
Demko underwent undisclosed lower-body surgery last spring that he described as fairly common for goaltenders. But he returned to Vancouver in early August to get a head start on preparation, working with goalie coach Ian Clark, and said during training camp in September that he felt more ready than ever to start a season.
It turned out to be a false start, with Demko shockingly porous. With the defensive chaos in front of him and a lot of pucks in the net behind him, Demko appeared to lose confidence. He admitted three weeks ago, as his game slowly began to improve, that he had never experienced anything like this slump and was grappling to climb out of it.
Ironically – or typically – Thursday’s injury occurred as Demko was displaying something close to his MVP form of last season. He picked up an emotional 4-3 overtime win Sunday in San Jose, where teammates rallied around him as Demko earned just his third victory in 14 starts, then on Thursday stopped the first 11 shots he faced, at least half of them high-quality chances. Then Canuck ineptitude reached a critical mass.
“I mean, we were being outplayed. . . and then they scored the first goal,” Boudreau summarized. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Okay. . . let’s have a stopper shift on the next one.’ And then they score again and then it seems like we’re watching the play going ‘what’s happening?’ And then they score the third one and leave Demmer out to dry. It seemed like giveaway after giveaway after giveaway.”
Veteran winger J.T. Miller described the Canucks’ inability to manufacture a momentum-changing shift “immaturity.”
“We talk all the time about, you know, we weren’t having our best period, there’s three minutes to go, let’s get it to the house and reset,” he explained. “And we give up three consecutive goals on shifts back to back to back. We don’t show enough maturity as a group for an extended period of time.”
Boudreau said: “I just thought we had no pushback. You’d like to think that after the last game — we (practised) for 20 minutes yesterday — that there would be a lot of energy. It was just like we were watching them play. It’s unfortunate. How we can play so good one week and then so bad the next week, it’s pretty mind boggling.”
The Canucks swept a three-game road trip last week that began with wins against Stanley Cup contenders in Colorado and Las Vegas. But with a chance to finally push their way back into playoff position after losing their first seven games of the season, the Canucks have been outscored 10-2 in home losses in which they simply weren’t competitive.
Matthew Tkachuk made it 1-0 at 18:14 Thursday after a defensive-zone giveaway by Luke Schenn, who had passed to where teammate Dakota Joshua would have been had he not broken his stick and wandered in search of another.
Ethan Bear’s weak play, with and without the puck, contributed to Gustav Forsling’s goal 35 seconds later, and 24 seconds (and four shots) after that, Lomberg made it 3-0 and Demko hobbled to the dressing room.
Martin, who has played well over his nine starts this season but benefitted from heavy run support, gave up two goals on 14 shots in 40 minutes of relief work against the Panthers.
“It’s really weird. Like, It’s eerie,” Martin said of coming in for an injured friend and crease-mate. “You watch how much work he puts in. I’ve been in that situation where I’m not able to get off the ice. I don’t want to comment too far, I don’t want to assume he’s hurt. But there’s the worry of that. And then you also have to take care of your business for the team. But, you know, when you care, it’s tough.”
Still, Martin feels capable of playing more if it’s required. He played his way into an NHL opportunity in Vancouver after starting last season as the Canucks’ third-string goalie in the American League.
“I’m always pushing to be in every game,” he said. “Whatever level I’m playing, I want to play every game, but I’m also supportive of teammates and other goalie partners when they play.
“I’ve waited a long time for and worked really hard to be in a position where it matters. Right now, it matters. I’m not playing my eighth year in the American League; I’m getting my first year in the NHL. So that’s really positive for me.”
Maybe some of that will rub off.
The Arizona Coyotes visit Rogers Arena on Saturday before the Canucks close their four-game homestand Monday against the Montreal Canadiens.