VANCOUVER – A single credit short of a psychology degree, Thatcher Demko was told that he is still undefeated in the National Hockey League. The goalie-academic then pivoted in the Vancouver Canucks’ dressing room and touched the faux wood panelling behind him.
“Knock on wood,” he said. “Hopefully I play a couple more.”
Ah, so the psychologist, the man of the brain, is superstitious?
“No, not anymore,” he said. “I was very superstitious in college. But not in pro.”
Well, whatever he’s got going for him worked magnificently on Friday night when the 22-year-old NHL rookie made 36 saves in his first start this season and was easily the best Canuck when Vancouver beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 despite being out-skated and outplayed.
Including his free one-game trial last March during a fact-finding mission from the minors, the former Boston College star is now 2-0 as an NHL goalie.
His great story overshadowed a lot of little bad ones on a night when the Canucks were fortunate to win. Shots were 39-23 for the Sabres, who had seven shots and one goal before Vancouver ever forced a save from Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark. Shot attempts were 70-40 for the Sabres.
Getting his first start since the Canucks traded backup Anders Nilsson to Ottawa on Jan. 2 to make room in the NHL for Demko, the 2014 second-round pick turned away the final 18 shots he faced, including a game-saving stop on Rasmus Dahlin’s backdoor one-timer with 5:30 remaining.
The Canucks ended the game as they started – under siege – but defenceman Chris Tanev ran out the clock by falling on the puck with six seconds left while Sabres whacked at him like a piñata.
“Guys were yelling at me to eat it, so I just fell down on it,” Tanev said in a dressing room made jubilant by Demko. “(Troy) Stecher just told me it was six seconds; it felt like forever.
“It’s great we won. Obviously, the points are huge. But if you play like that most nights, you’re not going to win. Demmer made some huge saves for us and it was a great game for him. Everyone in here is really happy for him. But the start, especially the first eight minutes, was awful.”
Canuck Loui Eriksson skated untouched between Sabres Sam Reinhart and Marco Scandella to convert Josh Leivo’s goalmouth pass and break a 3-3 tie at 5:57 of the third period.
Demko did the rest, earning chants from the Rogers Arena crowd and rambunctious congratulations from teammates at the end. He was named the first star in his second NHL game.
“They were just happy for me,” Demko said. “That’s why you play, you know? You want those guys to be proud. I’m just glad I was able to get the guys the win and, obviously, everyone put in a great effort.
“A huge part of being a goalie is gaining the trust of your teammates. I try to get as many of these games as I can. We’re in a playoff race now. It’s exciting. First time I’ve ever been in one of those at the NHL level. It’s a fun time.”
The Canucks, now 2-0-2 on their vital six-game homestand despite some dodgy spells, moved back over .500 at 22-21-6 and back into the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom is on the best run of his career, but Canucks coach Travis Green badly wanted to find a start somewhere for Demko, who has been practising intensely under goalie guru Ian Clark since his promotion from the Utica Comets 2½ weeks ago.
Markstrom will be back in net Sunday afternoon against the Detroit Red Wings.
“Big thing for me is just being part of the team, and proving to these guys that I’m up here and I want to work towards something with them,” Demko said. “I feel like I’ve been able to do that in practice. And these guys have been pushing me hard, too. At the end of the day, it comes down to games.”
Demko made terrific rebound saves against Jeff Skinner and Vladimir Sobotka, but his stop on Dahlin as the goalie moved quickly across his crease was the save of the night. Canucks phenom Elias Pettersson’s biggest challenger for the Calder Trophy, Dahlin’s one-timer dented the cage on Demko’s mask. The goalie uses his head in hockey, too. Smart.
“He was phenomenal,” Canucks centre Bo Horvat said. “For him to play a game like that and be as calm as he was making big saves, you feel comfortable and confident when you’re on the ice with him. It was fun to be a part of. The fans are getting into it, the crowd’s loud for him every time he makes a save. It definitely makes you want to work that much harder to get that win for him.”
The rest of this season is essentially preparation – NHL orientation — for Demko, who is from San Diego but also spends lots of time in the off-season in Boston and Connecticut.
“I live in my car,” he said.
Like a van down by the river?
No, he said, he owns a jeep.
Nothing wrong with that, but he may be in line for an upgrade. Touch wood.