EDMONTON – After seeing five shots in six months, Thatcher Demko faced five in the opening eight minutes on Tuesday and 43 in his first National Hockey League start since March 10. Fortunately for the Vancouver Canucks, he hasn’t forgotten how to play goal.
Just like Brock Boeser hasn’t forgotten how to score, and the Canucks, who fended off elimination by beating the Vegas Golden Knights 2-1, haven’t forgotten how to believe in themselves when not many others did.
With starting goalie and team MVP Jacob Markstrom unable to play due to an undisclosed injury, Demko came in covered in cobwebs and left covered in glory with a titanic performance that extended the Canucks’ unlikely playoff run to at least Game 6 against the Knights on Thursday.
Vegas still leads the second-round series 3-2. But the Canucks are still in the fight and have put at least a little more pressure on the heavily-favoured Golden Knights, who outshot Vancouver 42-17.
“You never know when you have to go in,” Demko said, having had only eight minutes of playoff relief before Tuesday’s unexpected start. “I just wanted to stay sharp through the whole process from training camp (in July) and getting into the bubble. I just wanted to be ready to help out.
“I know I’ve been doing my thing in practice to make sure my details are where they needed to be. Obviously, it’s a little bit different in a game. But everything you see in the game you’ve seen at some point in practice, and you just have to rely on that kind of thing.”
Sleep and healthy eating help, too, apparently.
“He’s a guy that goes to bed early and eats the right way,” defenceman Quinn Hughes said of Demko, eliciting a quick smirk from teammate Elias Pettersson during the post-game video call. “We knew that when he gets his chance, he’s going to be pretty dialled in. I don’t think anyone was surprised at how well he did, to be honest. We know how good he is. I think we all have a lot of confidence and faith in him.”
Demko made 22 saves in the first half of the game — Vancouver tested Vegas goalie Robin Lehner six times — and kept it scoreless until 15:12 of the second period when Knights defenceman Shea Theodore weaved through a series of Canucks’ shadows before burying a top-corner shot.
The goal felt like it might release a dam-burst of Vegas offence. Instead, on the next shift, Boeser worked a give-and-go with J.T. Miller before redirecting a backhand past Lehner to make it 1-1. All those shots and scoring chances and dominant shifts for the Knights to finally take a lead, and it lasted for just 24 seconds.
Somehow tied going into the third period, the Canucks exhorted themselves to play one good period and at 3:19 of the third, Pettersson deflected Boeser’s shot amid a jungle of players after Vancouver coach Travis Green had reunited his 6-40-9 Lotto Line, restoring the Boeser-Pettersson-Miller trio that was one of the NHL’s best for most of the season.
It was just the second goal in 12 playoff games for Boeser, who had had only one assist in the series.
“I don’t think we’d played together this series yet,” Boeser said. “And when we got reunited, I felt we were clicking pretty well. We knew where each other were. It was fun.
“I know I haven’t been scoring, and I know I need to score goals. I’ve been trying to bring my work ethic each and every game and contribute something to the team. It was nice to get one. I think it will definitely help the confidence. Hopefully I can keep playing this way.”
Boeser was the best Canuck not wearing goalie pads. Through two periods, he had 40 per cent of Vancouver’s 10 shots on goal.
The Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault had eight shots of his own. Max Pacioretty had five shots. Both may have slept less fitfully than Demko after the game.
“I think it was lights out at maybe 10:05 or 10:10 p.m.,” Demko said when asked about his sleep Monday night after learning he’d be replacing Markstrom with the Canucks’ season in the balance. “These guys go to bed a little bit later than I do, but I like to be rested. I like to know I did everything I could to be ready to go.
“I slept great last night, thankfully. When you’re going into these games you try not to think too much and just go out and play. I’ve put in the work leading up to this point; you’ve just kind of got to rely on that.”
No one on the Canucks is saying how long Markstrom may be out, but the goalie who started Vancouver’s first 14 playoff games was unable to back up on Tuesday. So he is hurt, not merely tired.
“It’s funny, we didn’t even talk about that or mention that,” Hughes said of the players’ reaction to the goaltending switch. “(Thatcher) was awesome tonight, our best player. We’re fortunate to have two goalies like that.”
If the Canucks somehow win again on Thursday, the seven-game series will be decided the next night. By then, it will be the teams’ fifth playoff game in seven days. They may need two goalies each. Or three.
“We’ve got a really good team; we know that,” Hughes said. “The coaching staff believes in us and, most importantly, we believe in ourselves. We’ve got good leadership in the sense that we knew we didn’t play well in the first two periods and we went in the locker room and knew we needed to come back and push a little bit. I think that’s what we did.
“I think there’s a lot of faith in the group. We know they’re a really good team, but we think we’re a good team too.”
Better than almost anyone expected before these playoffs began.