Dealing with unprecedented absences in net, Canucks' minor-league magic runs out

Justin Faulk had a goal and an assist and Ville Husso turned aside 38 of 39 shots as the St. Louis Blues defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-1.

VANCOUVER – One thousand games as a National Hockey League coach, and never a weekend like this one for Bruce Boudreau.

The Vancouver Canucks’ 66-year-old head coach learned Friday that star goalie Thatcher Demko was following backup Jaroslav Halak into COVID-19 protocol, then watched that night as minor-league callup Spencer Martin was outstanding in his first NHL game in nearly five years, allowing only one goal in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers. Martin followed that up by testing positive for the virus on Saturday.

Boudreau's starter on Sunday against another powerful opponent, the St. Louis Blues, was minor-leaguer Michael DiPietro – the last of five goalies on the Canucks’ organizational depth chart not quarantining somewhere.

But on the coach's 1,000-game anniversary, there wasn’t enough Spencer Martin-like magic for DiPietro.

In his second NHL start, and first in nearly three years since he was an emergency recall from junior, DiPietro lost 3-1 to the Blues despite Vancouver outshooting St. Louis 39-17.

The 22-year-old former third-round pick from Windsor, Ont., was far from responsible for the loss. But DiPietro was a distant second-best to Blues goalie Ville Husso, who is badly outperforming St. Louis starter Jordan Binnington this season.

For the record, DiPietro’s emergency backup on Sunday was University of British Columbia goalie Rylan Toth. Another student-athlete, Trinity Western University goalie Talor Joseph, was the emergency backup Sunday when the Canucks’ minor-league team played an hour east in Abbotsford.

And just so you fully understand the depth of the Canucks’ almost-comical netminding crisis, the Abbotsford Canucks’ starting goalie in a pair of weekend wins against the San Diego Gulls was someone named Joe Murdaca, a 23-year who is now on his fourth professional tryout in the minors this season but who until Saturday had never played a game above the ECHL level. (Or made it past one game on his tryouts).

This might all be easier to laugh about if the Canucks were not also missing again on Sunday three of their top four forwards in J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat and Conor Garland, who are scattered across three cities while quarantining for Covid.

If all goes well in recovery and testing, Demko should be available to play Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers.

Halak is supposed to rejoin the Canucks when they start a four-game road trip Thursday in Winnipeg.

“I'm hoping,” Boudreau said Sunday after Vancouver’s first regulation loss in four games amid the team’s Omicron surge. “My fingers are crossed (like): OK, we've finished this part of our history of the Vancouver Canucks, let's move on to something else.”

There was still some magic dust drifting around Rogers Arena at the start of Sunday’s game when DiPietro, whose only other NHL start was Feb. 11, 2019 when he was literally thrown to the Sharks in a 7-2 loss to San Jose, saved the first nine St. Louis shots.

But the 10th was an unstoppable top-corner deflection by Justin Faulk that tied the game 1-1 at 18:33 of the first period, and DiPietro also had little chance on Brayden Schenn’s net-side redirect of Vladimir Tarasenko’s pass on a Blues’ power play at 3:26 of the middle period. The goalie missed Jordan Kyrou’s stick-side shot from distance at 16:43 of the second.

Tanner Pearson scored the Canucks’ only goal at 16:30 of the first period from power-play pressure after the expiration of what had been a pretty dismal two-man advantage for a full two minutes.

“They tried their butt off,” Boudreau said of his depleted lineup. “I mean, there's no doubt. Anytime you can hold this team to 17 shots or St. Louis to seven shots (over the final 40 minutes), and that's including a power-play goal... you've done what you're supposed to do. It's just right now we're having a hard time scoring. A couple breakaways here and there and we have a couple of great looks, and the one time we do score we have two guys jump on the ice (for a penalty).

“Really, really happy with the way they worked and the way they cared. Just, I expect to win every time we go on the ice, so I'm unhappy with that result.”

So was DiPietro.

“It's been a little bit of a whirlwind,” the prospect said of his weekend. “I just tried to stay in the moment as much as I can. Yeah, it has been a while between starts. I think my comfort level was definitely a lot more comfortable this time around. But, obviously, I got outplayed tonight by the other guy. The guys played great in front of me. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the win.”

Husso twice stuffed Canuck Jason Dickinson on breakaways, and stopped Quinn Hughes on a two-on-one rush in the third period.

Elias Pettersson did not register a shot on net for Vancouver but had the second assist on Pearson’s goal. Brock Boeser, the other front-line Canuck forward still in the lineup, had six shots on net and 12 attempts. Hughes had five shots and nine attempts in 28:55 of ice time.

Hughes said the Covid situation on the Canucks is “crazy,” but “everyone's gone down with Covid once this year, so it is what it is. You've just got to keep playing.”

No matter who is in net. Or who isn’t.

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