TORONTO – Scotiabank Arena was built so that fans, at least the ones willing to pay a fortune for the best seats, can see players even after they leave the ice.
To get to the dressing room from the benches, players walk up a corridor and traverse a hallway that’s open to the media and in full view of fans stationed at each end. So when Vancouver Canucks forwards J.T. Miller and Antoine Roussel left the ice barking at one another after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, there were witnesses.
Stuff happens. It’s the NHL and there’s a lot of pressure to win, especially when your team has missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the past four seasons and in this one has seen its playoff safety net shrink from nine points to just one or two. That net looks more like a few loose threads right now.
Everyone wants to win, few more so than Miller and Roussel, but the Canucks are 4-6-1 in their past 11 games. On the brink of a three-game losing streak, Vancouver will play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday — the team’s second game in 24 hours.
There is tension. If there wasn’t, there would be no hope for the Canucks.
But the more important – and more private — conversation between teammates occurred on the ice during a television timeout halfway through the first period when Troy Stecher encouraged goalie Thatcher Demko, who had allowed two suspect goals on Toronto’s first four shots and is struggling mightily to replace injured starter Jacob Markstrom.
If the Canucks are going to survive the three- or four-week absence of their most valuable player, and one of the league’s best goalies this season, they’re going to need more than just Demko to play better.
But the impact of others will be significantly lessened if Demko has more games like he did Saturday, when he looked horrendous on one goal and poor on two others (the Leafs’ final goal was into an empty net).
“I’ve said it before, it’s different when you’re the starter than when you’re the backup,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “You can’t go through it until you go through it. And he’s going through it now.”
Demko, who has a psychology degree and has studied philosophy, has said that he doesn’t believe in pressure, which he views as a kind of manufactured condition inflicted on oneself.
But he sure looked to be under duress when he failed to pick up the puck in time to stop fourth-liner Frederik Gauthier’s shot from the top of the circle just 2:45 into the first period, then somehow allowed Auston Matthews’ low, unscreened shot from a sharp angle to get under his pad, which was not sealed against the ice at the near post, at 6:25.
“I guess there was a hole in the ice,” Demko said without humour.
It was a few minutes later, during the mid-period TV break, that Brandon Sutter skated over to Demko to give him a stick-tap and Stecher had his heart-to-heart with his friend and teammate.
The defenceman declined to share the conversation with Sportsnet but made it clear the team believes in the 23-year-old goalie who was excellent during short stints as Markstrom’s replacement last fall.
“I don’t think it’s any different; a hockey game’s a hockey game,” Demko said. “I wake up in the morning on game day and I’ve got to go play a game. It doesn’t matter if I played yesterday or two weeks ago. Just want to keep getting better here and be solid down the stretch.”
Pressure, Troy Stecher?
“It’s the NHL, so I think everybody is going to feel pressure at times,” Stecher said. “He’s been so good for us all year, and this is just a two-game stretch. As a group, we need to rebound tomorrow and when he’s back in net, we’ll have confidence in him. It’s not like we’re losing confidence in him.”
The Canucks pushed back after Demko allowed two early goals for the third-straight game since Markstrom left the lineup with an injured meniscus in his knee. Tyler Motte tied it 1-1 from Sutter’s pass at 5:28, after Jay Beagle won a puck battle on the end boards against Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin. And Pearson freed himself from Sandin in front of the net to flip a loose puck past Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen to make it 2-2 at 11:01, soon after Stecher’s pep talk.
But Vancouver couldn’t find another tying goal when, just 18 seconds into the third period, stay-at-home defenceman Martin Marincin made it 3-2 for Toronto when he scored on his own rebound off the post following an unscreened 35-foot shot that beat Demko on the stick side.
Zach Hyman scored into an empty net.
Demko said he needs to be better.
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” he said of his teammates. “It’s three games we’ve been down, guys are battling back, sticking to the game plan. Guys continue to block shots and do what they can to get back in the game.”
He appreciated Sutter and Stecher trying to lift him.
“It kind of just shows the bond that’s in the locker room,” Demko said. “If those circumstances were on those guys, I’d be doing the same thing. It just speaks volumes about their character. It’s really nice.”
Canucks centre Elias Pettersson, who went pointless for the sixth time in 10 games, said: “(Demko) can handle this. I have my full belief in Thatcher. He’s a great goalie.”
But the Canucks don’t even need Demko to be great, just good. He has been not good enough since Markstrom was hurt.