Thatcher Demko’s return gifts Canucks a belated Christmas present

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko looks on during a stoppage in play against the Colorado Avalanche during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Saturday November 16, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – We’re not sure how Santa stuffed him down the chimney, but Thatcher Demko was the Vancouver Canucks’ big Christmas present.

The six-foot-four backup fully practised with the Canucks on Friday for the first time since suffering his second friendly-fire concussion in 15 months during an optional practice on Dec. 9.

Demko missed two months at the start of last season after taking a puck to the mask, so his return after just a couple of weeks is encouraging even if successive head injuries are disconcerting to the National Hockey League team that still views the 24-year-old as its goalie-of-the-future.

While Demko was out, Jacob Markstrom fortified his status as the goalie-of-the-present by starting eight consecutive games before the Christmas break and posting a save percentage of .924 that represents the 29-year-old’s best stretch this season.

And since general manager Jim Benning confirmed two weeks ago that he wants to re-sign Markstrom before the Swede becomes an unrestricted free-agent this summer, the Canucks’ crease is going to make for fascinating viewing as Vancouver chases a playoff spot over the next 44 games.

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For now, there is palpable relief within the organization that the Canucks are back to full strength in goal – and just in time for back-to-back weekend games starting with the Los Angeles Kings’ visit to Rogers Arena on Saturday. The Canucks play in Calgary on Sunday.

“We need him back,” Canucks coach Travis Green said Friday. “Especially in that position, it’s not like you can just fill in with guys. I believe we’ve got depth and been able to get through some other injuries. But when it comes to your goalies, knock on wood, you hope they’re not out too long.

“Marky had a good run, but it’s tough to sustain that. Nice to have Demmer back for sure.”

Demko said he’s not worried about his concussion history – “it just happens; it’s hockey” – and isn’t surprised to be back much sooner from this injury than last season’s.

“This year, I was able to get back much quicker because I was in a better (starting) spot,” Demko explained. “I’ve learned a lot through last year’s experience, just a couple of things I can do to keep on top of it and give myself a better chance or preventing it.

“I was off the ice for only eight or nine days as opposed to last year when it was two months. That’s good for me and hopefully good for the organization so we can lighten the load on Marky a little bit. That was a tough stretch, and he did a great job doing what he could.”

Twice this fall, Markstrom left the Canucks and returned to Sweden due to the terminal illness and subsequent death of his father. Markstrom went eight days between starts in mid-October, then nine days between games at the start of December.

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The eight straight games he played upon his last return was the best opportunity Markstrom had this season to get into a rhythm, and he used it to regain the outstanding form he reached over the final four months of last season.

“It’s been a really choppy first half for me, personally,” he said Friday. “It’s been tough to get in the groove. When I felt, ‘OK, I’m finally here,’ then I go home to Sweden and start over a little bit. It’s been a little choppy.

“The Christmas break was well-needed for me, both physically and mentally. There was a lot of hockey being played, and I wasn’t in my best shape, wasn’t able to work out as much I wanted to. I feel like I recharged the batteries and am ready to go.”

Markstrom said “you lose your eyes” when he goes several days without playing or practising because tracking the puck is a daily staple for goaltenders. He said the lack of work also affects his knees and hips.

But there is a fine line between playing too much and not enough. That eight-game stretch before Christmas meant he had to manage his energy level, which is why he wasn’t able to work as hard in the gym and he likes.

“I think the mental toll is way bigger than the physical,” he said. “Don’t get derailed. If you have a bad game, go through it and (learn) what could you do better. Next day, come to work with a smile and work harder. And when you have a good game, don’t get too happy because there’s another game coming in two days. It’s super simple, but it’s super hard to do for a long period of time because of your emotions.”

Obviously, there have been many of those.

“This is going to be a little bit of different year for him emotionally with what he’s gone through,” Green said. “But physically, he’s had to reset a couple of times and I’m sure it was nice for him to get into a run and play those games.”

Demko said: “I want to make sure I’m available not only for myself and the team but for him. He’s been going through a lot this year. This last couple of weeks was a tough stretch. Full props to him for getting it done and getting through it.”

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