EDMONTON – However this incredible, unexpected adventure ends for him, Thatcher Demko’s arrival as a goalie in the NHL will be linked to this summertime Stanley Cup playoffs. To some extent, the Vancouver Canucks will be viewed the same way.
After not starting for six months and watching top goalie Jacob Markstrom play all 14 of Vancouver’s playoff games in August, Demko is suddenly a goaltending Mr. September, having carried the Canucks back into their second-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights by stopping 90 of 91 shots in two games in just over 48 hours.
He posted a 48-save shutout Thursday in the Canucks’ 4-0 win against the heavily favoured Golden Knights, who suddenly have something to worry about for being dragged into a Game 7 after leading the series, 3-1. That was when Markstrom was injured, and Demko was called in to save the season.
He made 42 saves in a 2-1 win on Tuesday, and his performance Thursday was even more astounding – not because he shut out Vegas, but because he did it without the benefit he had previously of zero expectations.
With the Knights ready for him this time, Demko didn’t allow a goal.
His .989 playoff save percentage is absurd, compared to the .905 save rate he had during his first full NHL regular season. But so is the Canucks’ journey to this point – forcing Friday’s Game 7 against a stronger, deeper, more experienced Vegas team that hadn’t scored one or fewer goals in consecutive games in two-and-a-half years.
“As a kid, no one really talks about (playing) Game 1 or Game 2,” rookie Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes, apparently recovered from whatever slowed him at the start of the series, said after scoring one goal and setting up another in Game 6. “I think everyone dreams of Game 7. And to give ourselves a chance after being down 3-1, we’re proud of ourselves. We’re not satisfied, but it’s a good step for us. For a lot of us guys that haven’t been in playoffs, I think it’s really good experience for us. . . to kind of push Vegas to Game 7. We aren’t satisfied, but I think we’re all pretty excited.”
“It says a lot about our group,” veteran winger J.T. Miller said after scoring on his one good leg. “We easily could have rolled over. It’s not the same as when you have a normal fan base at the game. You’re down 3-1 and it’s pretty quiet in the rink; it’s easy to want to quit and go home. I don’t think we really care what anybody else thinks, I think we’re going to be ready to play tomorrow.
“Obviously, Demmer is playing unreal and giving us a chance to win. We’re coming up big at the right time right now. They’re a hard team to play against, but I think we are, too.”
The Canucks’ opening five minutes were their best in the series. But for the next 35, they looked like the team that was penned and pressured in their zone for all of Tuesday’s game. But, fortunately, Demko also looked like the impervious goalie he was then.
He kept the Canucks ahead 1-0 after Jake Virtanen surprised Vegas goalie Robin Lehner with a wraparound just 2:50 into the game, following some outstanding work by teammate Tyler Motte. It was the first goal – or point – by a bottom-six Vancouver forward in this series.
But it sure didn’t feel like a winning goal the way the game was going. After surviving the first two periods, the Canucks seized the game in the third.
Hughes looped around the Vegas net with the puck, out-skated Shea Theodore — which is not easy to do — and drew defenceman Alec Martinez away from the net before dropping the puck to Miller in open space. His shot through Elias Pettersson’s screen made it 2-0 at 1:03 of the final period.
Pettersson, the emerging superstar with otherworldly skill, again was jamming the net, taking away Lehner’s eyes when Hughes slapped a puck post-and-in at 8:16.
“I think both those goals, we don’t score if Petey doesn’t screen the goalie there,” Hughes said.
Captain Bo Horvat added a fourth goal into an empty net.
The Golden Knights, who hadn’t lost a game in regulation time to the Canucks the past three seasons, have lost three times in this series.
“I think everyone has to raise their game as the series goes on,” Hughes said. “That’s a big thing because you know games are going to get more intense as we go here.”
Hughes didn’t disclose any injuries, but confirmed he feels better physically “after a couple of off-days” than when the series began. A bunch of Canucks – Miller, winger Tyler Toffoli, defenceman Tyler Myers – are playing hurt.
And yet, here they are with a chance to win their third playoff series in a month and advance to the franchise’s fourth conference final in 50 years, after Canucks teams won nothing since losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
“I think a lot of guys in here thought we had a good chance to win,” Hughes said. “Sometimes guys are missing families in the bubble, but what I can say is after we win games, there is no better feeling. I think we’re really coming together here. The word ‘belief,’ I think is important, and I think we’ve got that.”
Certainly, Demko does believe, even if the late game times are forcing him to miss his early bedtimes. Nobody will have time to rest between Games 6 and 7.
“I just wanted to come in and try to help out any way I could,” the 24-year-old goalie said. “When we were down 3-1, our goal was to win one game at a time and eventually get to a Game 7, which we’ve done. I’m just trying to keep the pucks out of my net.”
He has failed to do that. Once in two games.