VANCOUVER – A funny thing happened as goalie Thatcher Demko was trying to steal the Vancouver Canucks a hockey game. He discovered some accomplices.
Badly outshot in the first 25 minutes of Thursday’s game by the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canucks needed Demko to be brilliant, which he was. But by the third period, the goalie had lots of help making a getaway with a precious and unlikely two points as Vancouver beat Toronto 3-1 at Rogers Arena.
Demko has been outperforming his team for a while. In his previous six games, the first-year starter posted a save rate of .927, but won only twice. So, a visit by the NHL-leading Leafs always looked like a potential smash-and-grab game the goalie might have to steal.
But rather than let him try to perform the heist alone, teammates dug in to help and played one of their best third periods this season, stringing together a series of zone-dominant shifts before Bo Horvat’s goal at 7:56 extended the lead and sent the Canucks on to their most impressive victory this year.
Far more surprising than Demko’s performance was that long-lost winger Jake Virtanen, who has spent time this season in the trade-display case, scored twice to drive the Canucks attack.
“That's the player we envision,” Canucks coach Travis Green said of the 24-year-old winger. “He was getting places, he was taking the puck, he was playing with authority, taking pucks wide and using his speed, shooting. If he can bring that game to the table every night, he's a very effective player in the league. I was happy for him to have a big game tonight for us. That's the player that we've envisioned from Day 1.”
Virtanen was drafted sixth overall in 2014, so this is actually something like Day 2440. But if the forward from Abbotsford played more often like he did Thursday, Jim Benning wouldn’t have been trying for much of the last year to see what he can get in a trade.
Virtanen’s previous score – besides signing a new two-year contract on Oct. 22 – came on a lucky bounce in Calgary on Jan. 18.
“A lot of players go through it, and it's just part of hockey and part of the business,” Virtanen said of the noise around him this season. “For me, I love playing in Vancouver and I love the Vancouver fans. They're super passionate; they just want us to win. Other than that, it is what it is. I try to stay positive as much as I can. I have great teammates. We all support each other in that room. Family support me, and friends. I haven't tried to be negative or anything. Tonight was a good stepping stone.
“I think management has faith in me. I want to stay a Canuck as long as I can. I love playing here.”
Any team would love to have the Virtanen who played Thursday.
“He's a such an effective player when he's skating and playing confident,” Demko said. “You're able to see that tonight. I'm really happy for him. It's really good to see.”
Virtanen scorched Toronto defenceman Justin Holl one-on-one to open scoring on a power move to the net just 2:59 into the game, then burned Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson with a short-side shot from an acute angle that broke a 1-1 tie at 11:29 of the middle frame.
But on shift that preceded Virtanen’s game-winner, Demko stacked his pads to stop Ilya Mikheyev on a shorthanded two-on-one.
Pierre Engvall, given an open freeway to the net after Canucks Travis Hamonic and Marc Michaelis, the 25-year-old German forward who made his NHL debut, was the only Leaf to beat Demko, tying the game 1-1 at 17:15 of the opening period.
Demko finished with 31 saves, including late point-blank stops against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But the Canucks actually outshot the Leafs 9-7 in the final period.
After closing out a three-game beatdown of the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs will be better rested for Saturday’s rematch in Vancouver. But the Canucks had a lot to feel good about on Thursday after getting swept in a three-game series in Toronto last month, losing by a combined score of 15-5.
“I think that's the biggest takeaway from the game, going into the third period up one and being able to not only play smart but continue playing our game and continue playing aggressive and keeping the puck down in their end,” Demko said. “Those things all end up with Bo scoring a big goal to give us a little cushion there, which is huge. A huge step in the right direction I think for our group.”
It was a giant stride taken without star centre Elias Pettersson, who was unable to play for the Canucks due to an “upper-body injury” that has him out day to day.
“I just like that we stuck with it,” Green said of the way the Canucks closed out the Leafs after blowing multi-goal leads three times in recent games. “We kept skating, we kept pressuring. I thought we made good decisions not just with the puck but without the puck, which is an area that we've been talking about a lot with our group.
“I thought Demmer played a great game, but it didn't feel like it was a one-sided game. That's an offensive team (and) you're going to give up chances. Your goalie's going to have to make some saves, and I thought Demmer played a great game.”
And he had plenty of help.