VANCOUVER – For all the emotion and drama surrounding the Vancouver Canucks’ post-COVID sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team’s biggest advantage over those two games this week came from goalie Braden Holtby.
The biggest change in the Canucks’ lineup tonight is that starter Thatcher Demko will open a critical four-game series against the Ottawa Senators with his first appearance since March 24.
“It's definitely nice to see the games Holts gave us,” Canuck coach Travis Green told reporters after Thursday morning’s skate. “Man, he was good, he was really good. (But) I felt tonight we needed to get Demmer back in, and we also needed to probably give Holts a breather. These games haven't been easy on some of our guys, and Holts was one of them. It took a lot of energy out of them both games. The perfect scenario, you've got two guys that are on top of their game, and Holts definitely was in the last two, and I'm expecting Demmer to be on top as well.”
Demko has been more or less on top of his game since his first three starts of the season, decisively winning the No. 1 job as Holtby struggled in his first year in Vancouver.
Demko’s play, which includes a .917 save percentage in 25 appearances (.926 since those first three games in January), not only made him a starter but helped make him rich. He agreed to a five-year, $25-million-US contract extension on March 31, the day the National Hockey League shut down the Canucks due to what became the worst coronavirus outbreak of the season.
But Holtby’s re-emergence – his two wins against Toronto tripled his victory total since January – would be a game-changer for Vancouver down the stretch as it tries to catch the Montreal Canadiens for the final playoff spot in the North Division.
With 17 games remaining, the Canucks trail the Canadiens by 10 points but have five games in hand. If Montreal finishes 6-6, Vancouver needs to go the equivalent of 11-6-0, minimum.
“Yeah, why not?” Green said when asked if his team can do it. “We're 500 right now, we're scratching and clawing. But again, we're not sitting in our room talking about playoffs, we're sitting in our room talking about bringing our best game to the table on a nightly basis.”
Winger Brock Boeser said: “You know, it's just a tough situation all around, just seeing guys and families get ill and have to battle the virus. We kind of stuck together as a team that we felt we weren't ready to play. . . and then to come out and beat a team like Toronto twice, I think it has just given our team confidence.
“I think guys are starting to feel better each and every day. The guys that didn't have (COVID-19) are feeling good and feeling fresh. It's just a good feeling in the locker room right now, and a good feeling on the ice. We're all supporting each other and working together as a group. Like I said, the feeling is good right now and hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Canucks players balked at the initial post-outbreak schedule the NHL gave them, leading to a summit meeting last Wednesday with the Players’ Association and a major revision of the schedule. Instead of starting last Friday with back-to-back contests and five games in seven nights, the Canucks returned on Sunday against the Leafs and are playing five games in nine days before facing their first back-to-back next Wednesday and Thursday in Ottawa and Toronto.
“We still haven't practised since we started playing the games,” Green said. “We just felt it was more important to keep our team rested. I like how they skated the second game against Toronto (after) a day off. We'll make adjustments as we go whether to keep practising or not, but I thought we played a better game the second game than the first game. We looked a little sharper and, hopefully, we have that sharpness tonight.”
Green wouldn’t confirm his full lineup but it appears that Marc Michaelis will replace Antoine Roussel on the fourth line. Roussel suffered a lower-body injury on Tuesday and will miss “a couple of weeks,” Green said.
Matthew Highmore, the speedy ex-Chicago Blackhawk who looked lively in his Canucks debut on Tuesday, appears to be playing up the lineup beside J.T. Miller and Nils Hoglander. Boeser is joining Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson on what has become the top line with Elias Pettersson out indefinitely due to a reported wrist injury.
The Canucks are 5-0 against the Senators this season, but the last two victories came in extra time and Ottawa outplayed Vancouver for stretches of an earlier three-game sweep.