VANCOUVER – Thatcher Demko always wondered what the National Hockey League is like. Saturday he learned it is unforgiving.
It is where mistakes are punished and three-goal leads can disappear in two minutes and 30 seconds. But it is also a place where dreams come true.
The Vancouver Canucks’ goalie-of-the-future got a surprise callup and NHL debut on Saturday, which Demko won 5-4 when defenceman Alex Edler scored in overtime to ease the embarrassment of blowing a 4-1 lead in the final four minutes of regulation time against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Demko allowed four goals when it looked like he would yield just one in his first NHL game. But he still got two points and, far more importantly, first-person intel that the 22-year-old will use this summer as he prepares himself to challenge for a place on the Canucks next season.
“I just tried to enjoy it; I had a blast,” Demko told reporters after the win and before he presented the game puck to his father. “Even when they scored on three consecutive shots or whatever it was, I was still smiling.
“This is my first time seeing what it’s like up here. It’s a lot faster. Pucks are moving quicker and guys are making plays. I feel like one of the biggest things I’ll be working on is just making reads a little bit quicker and realizing where potential threats are. Just a tonne of stuff that I’m excited I was able (to see) and take into summer and really work on.”
The goalie from San Diego was drafted 36th by the Canucks in 2014 and his upward trajectory has pointed straight at the NHL since then. After three outstanding seasons at Boston College, the six-foot-four netminder is nearing the end of his second minor-league season with the Utica Comets, for whom he has posted a 23-12-4 record and .921 save percentage.
He led his division to victory in the American Hockey League’s All-Star Challenge this winter and is regarded as one of the best goaltending prospects on the planet.
But despite two brief recalls earlier this season for salary-cap reasons, he did not get to play an NHL game until Saturday. And with backup goalie Anders Nilsson battling illness, not injury, Demko may not get another start with the Canucks for a while.
Through his agent, Jordan Neumann, Demko had asked the Canucks for a chance to play this season. Not because of ego or entitlement, Demko explained Saturday, but because he needed the experience to know where he is in his development and where he needs to be to play in the NHL.
“I had some discussions with my agent about it throughout the year,” he said. “And I’d gotten to the point where I kind of just let go of it. There was a few times during the year I was thinking about it. But part of the maturity process is realizing there is nothing you can do to change it. They’re either going to call you up or they’re not. I’d let go of it. It honestly hadn’t crossed my mind in a few weeks.
“It wasn’t coming from an ego standpoint. I never talked to (Canuck general manager Jim) Benning or anyone; I’m solely focussed on playing wherever I am. But I really wanted to just get up here and take in the details that I could – just get that feeling for the speed of the game and different aspects of it.”
The first NHL shot he faced, by off-season training buddy Cam Atkinson, rocketed off the Vancouver cross bar 20 seconds into the game.
“I think the posts are bigger up here than they are in the AHL,” Demko joked.
He surrendered four goals on 30 shots, but none of them were at even strength. Columbus defenceman Seth Jones, who was dominant, scored on a post-and-in one-timer on a first-period power play. Pierre-Luc Dubois’ power-play goal from the slot started the Blue Jackets’ comeback at 16:02 of the third period.
When Zach Werenski made it 4-3 at 18:23 and Atkinson tied it 16 seconds later, Columbus was attacking six against five with Jackets’ goalie Joonas Korpisalo on the bench.
After allowing three goals on three shots at the end of regulation time, Demko made one save in overtime before Edler scored at 1:21, patiently holding the puck on a two-on-one down low before picking the far side on Korpisalo.
“We kind of fell asleep there,” winger Darren Achibald, one of the five Canuck goal-scorers, said of the late collapse. “A couple of mental errors and it’s a tie game. It’s unfortunate, but at the end of the day we got the job done. We’ve got a lot of new players in our lineup, and you’ve got to play a full 60 minutes in this league. You take the last five minutes off and it can go the other way.”
Until he signed an NHL deal with the Canucks two months ago, Archibald was Demko’s teammate in Utica.
“He’s mentally strong,” Archibald said. “He comes to win every day. He’s always a well-prepared goalie, very focussed. I’ve seen him make some crazy big saves the last couple of years. It’s nice to see him get an opportunity to play in the NHL.”
It should make Demko a better goalie in the AHL playoffs, which is where he will finish his second professional season this spring. The Canucks’ plan was to groom Demko for three years in the AHL, but he may be too good to keep out of the NHL next fall.
“Tonight was just the first step of the process of getting better,” he said.