MONTREAL – In the first game of the rest of his season, Thatcher Demko played Tuesday a lot like the starting goalie he replaced.
He kept the Vancouver Canucks in a game that they kicked off awfully and were outplayed for stretches, made big stops to rescue teammates after turnovers, and finished with enough saves for his team to beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 in overtime.
Jacob Markstrom would have been proud.
“I want the guys to have confidence in me,” Demko said after his 37-save performance the day Markstrom left the team with an injured knee. “This being the first game of the stretch, it was an important game for me to come in and just kind of calm the group. If I don’t play well, maybe they get a little bit nervous for the next handful of games. It was good for me to kind of get in a rhythm. Obviously, there’s a lot more games that I’m going to be playing. I just want to keep getting better as we go.”
Until the Canucks put a timeline on Markstrom’s injury – the betting over/under is four weeks – this is now Demko’s team to get to the playoffs.
Tuesday’s win nudged the Canucks four points above the playoff cut line in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference. They haven’t made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2015, have 20 games left to get there, and may need Demko to play 15 of them or more in just his second NHL season.
Demko has been groomed to become an NHL starter since the Canucks selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft.
He was a star at Boston College, a star in the American Hockey League. Ready or not, now is his NHL chance.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a good opportunity for me. I’ve been a starter elsewhere, but I’ve never really gotten an opportunity to do that yet up here. Playing every other day, that’s going to be a new thing for me, but I’m excited.
“It’s a little bit of a different mindset when you know you’re going to be playing a lot. I’m ready for that. I’m just really excited for the opportunity. I think we’re in a good spot as far as playoffs go, and I’m ready to contribute to that.”
In case you didn’t know, Demko is excited. He’s not fearful, not doubtful, not even nervous.
“It doesn’t change a thing,” defenceman Tyler Myers said of the team’s goals. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Demmer. It’s the same system we want to play. Play it hard, and try to do it for a full 60 every game.”
They might have had 40 good minutes against Montreal, but, after chasing the game all night, won it at 1:35 of overtime when Bo Horvat and Tyler Toffoli worked a give-and-go against three exhausted Canadiens skaters and Toffoli buried the puck behind Montreal goalie Carey Price.
It was Toffoli’s third goal and fifth point in three games since general manager Jim Benning acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings one week before Monday’s trade deadline.
“It’s been incredible,” Toffoli said. “The guys have been great. Getting points in all three games has made it a lot more fun. Demmer stood strong in net for us, made some really big saves at the right time for us. He let us battle back and grind it out.”
The Canucks were so flat and sloppy with the puck at the start that coach Travis Green burned his precious timeout at 7:23 of the first period to yell at his players to wake up. By then, it was already 2-0 for Montreal on goals by Paul Byron and Shea Weber.
“It was kind of getting off the rails a little bit,” Canuck winger J.T. Miller said.
“A few swear words mixed in there,” Green said of his message. “More or less… we had to be a little better with the puck, a little stronger on the puck, a little more direct in our game. I just felt like we needed one then. (Down) 2-0 on the road, we didn’t want to go down three.”
Miller teed up a rocket that Horvat sent into the top corner to cut the deficit in half on a power play at 15:57 of the first period, and Alex Edler drifted a point shot through traffic to tie it 2-2 at 15:36 of a middle period in which Vancouver was outshot 12-4.
After a lucky bounce off Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes, who had a difficult night but still managed to collect an assist for his 50th point in 61 games as a rookie, Jordan Weal made it 3-2 for the Canadiens 50 seconds into the final period.
But the Canucks’ power play scored again to tie it at 5:53 when Jake Virtanen bounced a sharp-angle shot in off Price’s shoulder.
So, yes, if you want to be picky, Thatcher Demko did outplay Carey Price.
“Any trade-deadline day, it feels like a lot is going on,” Myers said, referring to Monday when the Canucks scrambled to get journeyman goalie Louis Domingue to back up Demko. “And then you add in Marky’s (injury); you never want to see a guy go down like that, especially with how well he has been playing. But we have a lot of confidence in Demmer, too. He’s a big guy that is going to make a lot of saves for us. He played well when he was getting a lot of games at the start of the year. We’ll just keep battling for him.
“We found a way to get two points. It was a big win for the group and for Demmer.”