With Jacob Markstrom looking either tired or hurt in his last start, the Vancouver Canucks elected to give Thatcher Demko the nod in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Putting their backup goalie in this situation after he had a pretty underwhelming regular season was not an ideal scenario from the outside looking in.
Fast forward to the end of Game 5 and Demko stopped 42 of the 43 shots he faced to keep the Canucks alive and force a Game 6.
A backup who struggled a bit during the regular season only to hop into the playoffs and put up a .977 save percentage is an extremely goalie thing to do, but how did this come to be?
By the numbers, on top of the shot count, the Canucks were blown apart in Game 5 by all quality measures as well. The closest differential was inner slot shots, but the Golden Knights seemingly had free reign to pass to and through the slot, managed to get more chances off the rush on net despite dominating zone time, and obliterated the Canucks in the high slot and off the cycle by ridiculous amounts.
All told, the expected goals for the game according to Sportlogiq data were 3.14 – 1.57 for the Golden Knights. Demko stopping 2.14 goals above expectations is a phenomenal performance by a goaltender coming in cold, in a game where the Canucks had everything to lose.
However, despite the raw numbers looking disastrous for the Canucks, the expected goal total for the Golden Knights was relatively low for a 42-shot performance, which means on top of Demko’s excellent play, we need to put a bit of respect on the Canucks’ defensive play while playing rope-a-dope.
I know, you look at those numbers and think, “What are you talking about with defensive play? They gave up 21 shots on net from the slot!” But there are more factors than just getting shots that go into quality of opportunities.
For example, was the shot preceded immediately by a pass? Was the pass across the middle of the ice, or low to high to force Demko to change his positioning and adjust to the shot? How quick was the release? Was there a screen? Was there a rebound on the play? These and others are factors that don’t show up immediately in raw rate metrics, but can be factored into expected goal models.
Sportlogiq categorizes scoring chances into grades A, B, and C. A are shots on net with an expected goal value of 18 per cent or better, B grade chances are shots on net with an expected goal value of 15 per cent to 18 per cent, and C grade chances are shots on net with an expected goal value of 10 per cent to 15 per cent, and lower quality shots on net from the slot.
Despite 43 shots on net in Game 5, I was surprised to see that the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t manage to get a single Grade A chance on Demko, and of their 21 scoring chances on net in the game, 12 were Grade C chances.
That doesn’t mean Demko wasn’t spectacular because he absolutely was. He stopped all shots at the expected save percentage goalies have on perimeter shots, but it shows that the Canucks as a team also paid heavy attention to detail to deny the Golden Knights the highest quality of chances to protect their less experienced goaltender.
The Canucks have been relatively good at stopping Grade A chances from the Golden Knights ever since Vegas pounded them with eight in the first game of the series. Since then Vancouver has limited them to 2, 2, 5, and now zero each game. On the counter-attack, the Canucks have actually managed to outdo the Golden Knights in Grade A chances since Game Two, holding a 20-9 edge. That’s a big reason why Robin Lehner’s save percentage hasn’t been great in this series, and why the Canucks have been able to keep the series going.
The volume of the Golden Knights’ chances has still been more than enough to take control of the series, but that is to be expected based on where each of these teams are in their respective competitive windows.
Vegas is a dominant powerhouse, one of the top three teams in the entire NHL this season by the numbers. The Canucks are the pesky upstart, superbly likeable but punching far above their weight at this point in time.
Knowing how unlikely it would be for the Canucks to win the shot or scoring chance battle overall in this series, their intense focus on the highest quality plays makes a lot of sense, and gives another reason to admire this group.