Canucks look to Demko to elevate game after string of key injuries

Vancouver Canucks' Thatcher Demko (35) blocks a shot against Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier (14) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

VANCOUVER – It took coach Travis Green five words Tuesday to summarize the status of injured defenceman Quinn Hughes, whose absence from the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup will be worth at least 1,000 more if he’s unable to play on Wednesday.

“Banged up, day to day,” Green said.

Hughes’ share of this medical assessment was actually only two-and-a-half words, because Green was also speaking about Tyler Myers, the other defenceman missing from Tuesday’s practice at Rogers Arena.

As a 20-year-old rookie, Hughes has helped drive the Canucks this season, attacking the franchise record book with the same confidence and speed with which he attacks with the puck. He has 51 points in 64 games, and since the All-Star Game in January has three more points than any other defenceman in the NHL.

Hughes is coming off a road trip that was as tough for him as his team. He was crunched by an Alex Wennberg bodycheck Sunday before the Canucks collapsed against the Columbus Blue Jackets, surrendering four goals in the final eight minutes to lose 5-3 and finish a four-game tour at 1-3.

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Fortunately for the Canucks, Hughes was able to skate after Tuesday’s practice, and if his “day” isn’t Wednesday against the Arizona Coyotes, it could be Friday against the Colorado Avalanche.

Already without first-string goalie Jacob Markstrom (knee) and first-line winger Brock Boeser (ribs), the Canucks now could be without their first-pairing defenceman when they open a four-game homestand that will either reverse Vancouver’s slow slide in the standings or further endanger a playoff spot that looked fairly secure a month ago.

With those first players out, it is second-best goalie Thatcher Demko who is more empowered than anyone to help.

One way or another, these next couple of weeks are going to help define the 24-year-old backup, who has been a star at every level on his way to the NHL, but struggled mightily last week to fill-in for Markstrom.

“I think you guys are maybe seeing it in a different way than I am,” Demko told reporters Tuesday.

“For me, it’s just playing hockey. Whether it’s two weeks between starts or two days, it’s still a hockey game. I wake up in the morning and I’m still doing the same stuff. It’s just competing and giving the guys a chance to win.

“Everyone’s been through hard stretches. I remember my first year in Utica, (in the American League three years ago), was a little bit similar in the way I kind of struggled for a longer stretch than this. It was a little bit of a battle to find my way. I think up here I’m a lot more comfortable. I’ve been able to show and prove to the team and myself that I’m able to win games and compete. There’s no reason I can’t do that.”

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Exactly.

But last week on the road, after Markstrom returned to Vancouver for surgery on the meniscus in his knee, Demko was beaten seven times on 53 shots in consecutive losses to the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. He allowed one awful goal in each and was suspect on at least a couple of others.

His save percentage in those games was .867, which further dragged down statistics that peaked before Demko missed two weeks with a concussion in December. In nine starts since then, the former Boston College and U.S. National Development Program star is just 4-4-1 with an .899 save rate – well below the league average of .910.

Ironically, it was during Demko’s absence, that Markstrom elevated his game, stringing together nine straight starts that launched the Canucks on a 14-3-1 run.

It’s incredibly unreasonable to expect that Demko to play like Markstrom did, but the Canucks need him to be better than he was last week.

“I’ve stood in this room with you guys many times over the last couple of years talking about Marky and his evolution as a starter,” Green said. “It’s different. Like it or not, (starting) is different. I think there’s a reason why goalies are brought along the way they have been.

“We’ve tried to get Demmer games when we felt he needed them or should play them, but now once you’re the starter, it’s a different game. It affects each player differently. I can’t speak for him, but he’s going to be better off for it, and he’s going to get better at handling it the more he does it.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Demko was a starter at every level until the Canucks promoted him from Utica 14 months ago. By the way, his first coach down there? Same guy it is in Vancouver.

“I remember talking to him for a stretch down in Utica about the same types of things we’re talking about now,” Green said. “Confidence is different for a goalie, to a defenceman, to a forward. I think he’s more than capable and I’m not worried about him.”

The coach who spoke the most to Demko on Tuesday was goaltending guru Ian Clark, who had a lengthy conversation with his pupil as they sat on the visitors’ bench after practice.

“It’s not hard to know what’s at stake,” Demko said. “Everyone knows what’s at stake. You’ve just got to rely on your work and your habits. Everyone in this room has played in big games before. This last little stretch is when it gets fun. You work all year to put yourself in position to have an opportunity to make these big games. We’re excited and we’re moving forward.”

They hope.

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