VANCOUVER – One day after the Vancouver Canucks got their National Hockey League lineup together, the team got its National Hockey League goaltending together, too.
Netminders Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko were the stars on Saturday as the Canucks staged their second -- and last -- simulated game of training camp, a 2-1 shootout win for the “Blues” that was decided by Elias Pettersson’s post-and-in shot as the tie-breaker.
Without an exhibition game to help the goaltenders track pucks and see shots at NHL speed, it was important Holtby and Demko got everything they could out of these two intra-camp warmup games. Each played every minute of both tuneups, and each was significantly sharper on Saturday than he was in Wednesday’s 6-4 game, which was also three periods of stop-time and NHL officiating, following full morning skates.
Adjusting to a dramatic turn in his career after spending the last decade with the Washington Capitals, Holtby has looked better by the day during camp and is likely to be the Canucks’ starter when Vancouver opens its 56-game regular season with back-to-back games in Edmonton, beginning Wednesday.
He allowed only a penalty-shot goal to Justin Bailey early in the first period on Saturday and made a handful of excellent saves. Demko was beaten by a Brandon Sutter tap-in after Jake Virtanen weaved to the net with the puck in the second period as the “Whites” attacked five-on-four after Virtanen’s initially point shot stung defenceman Jack Rathbone.
Having lost starting goalie Jacob Markstrom to the rival Calgary Flames in free agency, the Canucks' netminding will be a story – good or bad – all season. It’s easily the least certain position on a team whose defence has been upgraded and forward lines are largely intact from last season and driven by young, offensive players.
In just his second full NHL season, Demko, 25, eventually will have to prove he can start at this level. And Holtby, 31, must show he can be the starter he was before a dismal final season in Washington. At least they’ll head into this extraordinary regular season feeling good about themselves.
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) January 10, 2021
Canucks winger Tyler Motte, who emerged in last summer’s playoffs as something more than just an energy player, isn’t trying to win a spot at camp; he’s trying to earn a bigger role. But he was probably trying too hard on Saturday when he twice kicked the feet out from under players.
The second slew-foot victim, Adam Gaudette, got up and challenged Motte. It was the first fight of Canucks camp, not including Twitter.
Gaudette briefly went to the dressing room before returning to finish the game, but Jayce Hawryluk, upended by Motte into teammate Kole Lind in the second period, was unable to continue. Hawryluk is trying to earn a depth role, at least high enough to make the six-man taxi squad.
These practice games were intended to bring the highest intensity possible from players unable to vent aggression against real opponents until the regular season starts. Motte is already at playoff intensity.
Defenceman Travis Hamonic, fulfilling the NHL-mandated one-week quarantine after agreeing to a professional tryout with the Canucks on the eve of training camp, should be cleared Sunday to practise with his new team.
Monday is scheduled as a day off, but there will be a final practice Tuesday before the Canucks charter to Edmonton. Hamonic and the Canucks already have a contract framed – believed to be a one-year deal for about $1 million – and a job posting: replacing Chris Tanev as the defence-minded partner for Calder Trophy runnerup Quinn Hughes.
Minor-leaguer Jalen Chatfield was back alongside Hughes on Saturday after being bumped out of that spot by Brogan Rafferty for Friday’s 23-man NHL practice. But if things go well for Hamonic Sunday and Tuesday, the former Calgary Flame will be lining up with Hughes on Wednesday.
The Canucks are expected to reduce their training camp roster after Sunday’s workouts. There really isn’t much mystery to Vancouver’s opening-night lineup, but coach Travis Green and the hockey-ops staff have critical decisions to make about the taxi squad, which essentially expands the Canucks’ useable roster to 29 players from 23.
The Canucks, Flames and Edmonton Oilers will all operate this season at a disadvantage against the rest of the Canadian division because their American Hockey League teams are based in the United States. With the federal government’s 14-day quarantine requirement for international travellers, the Utica Comets may as well be playing in a galaxy far, far away.
Any immediate help the Canucks need due to injuries or poor performance will have to come from the six-player taxi squad, which isn’t large enough to accommodate all the options Green would like to have.
Among the 23-man NHL roster and taxi squad, the Canucks will have three goalies, including minor-leaguer Mike DiPietro. Of the other 26 spots, figure on Vancouver carrying 10 defencemen and 16 forwards.