“Bubble Demko” lasted only three games, and it has taken the Vancouver Canucks’ goalie much longer than that to rediscover the sublime form that briefly made him the story of the playoffs last summer in Edmonton.
On Monday, six months after he single-handedly extended the Canucks’ Stanley Cup tournament another three games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Thatcher Demko looked again like “Bubble Demko,” stopping all 27 shots for his first official NHL shutout in a 4-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.
“I try to black out those memories,” Canucks defenceman Nate Schmidt, who played for Vegas against Demko in that seven-game series, said Monday when asked if his goalie’s form looked familiar. “Those are selectively deleted. But he looked fantastic tonight. He was really comfortable back there, made a lot of great plays. He looked good. . . and when we needed him to be good, we didn’t give up a whole lot of shots tonight.”
Filling in for injured starter Jacob Markstrom, Demko stopped 123 of 125 shots Vegas hammered him with over three games before the outmatched Canucks finally lost Game 7 last September.
That performance by the 24-year-old reinforced the organizational belief in him and was a factor in general manager Jim Benning’s decision in October to let Markstrom leave in free agency.
Demko lost his first three starts this season and in his first eight games had some of the poorest goaltending numbers in the NHL, allowing seven goals twice and at least four goals five times.
Like the team in front of him, Demko got a lot sharper in the second half of February. But like the team, he kept losing.
Each ended four-game losing streaks on Monday, when the Canucks scored three first-period deflection goals and, for a change, maintained the flow of oxygen to their brains after recent two- and three-goal collapses against the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Jets.
“You’re just trying to get the win and just take one shot at a time,” Demko said. “I thought the guys played really solid tonight. First two periods, I didn’t see much. Obviously, they were going to push. . . and try and claw their way back in the game there in the third. I thought we did a good job handling that and playing the right way for a full 60.”
Still possessing the third-worst defensive record in the league, allowing 3.4 goals per game, the Canucks limited the Jets to just 12 shots in the first two periods. Winnipeg had 15 shots in the third, when Demko’s confidence and positional efficiency were most evident.
It was his fourth start in five games, and seventh in nine. Clearly, coach Travis Green believes in the goalie who has seized the No. 1 spot from veteran Braden Holtby. In his last six starts, Demko’s save percentage is .931.
“I think it’s a lot of just learning,” he said. “There’s a tonne of things that I was picking up on, and you kind of just learn how to manage everything day to day. Obviously, playing is nice and getting into a rhythm, like you said. But I’ve just got to continue to work and continue to grow here, and continue trying to help the team win.”
The Jets and Canucks play again Tuesday night.
“His game is growing,” Green said. “Much like our team, I don’t think he had the best start to the season. But he has worked hard on his game. I think the team’s playing better in front of him, and he’s given us some real solid goaltending here and it’s good to see.
“I think he’s been working hard with Clarkie (goaltending coach Ian Clark) not just on his game but on the mental part. He’s been in a good place even though we haven’t won as many games as we would like to or he’d like to.”
Point shots by Schmidt 18 seconds apart early in the first period both ended up behind Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, giving the Canucks a 2-0 lead. The first one deflected off Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp at 8:28, and the second was deftly tipped in by Vancouver winger J.T. Miller.
Rookie Nils Hoglander, redeployed at even-strength to the third line with Brandon Sutter and Adam Gaudette, tipped in a Tyler Myers shot at 14:50 – just the second power-play goal this season for the Canucks’ second unit.
Elias Pettersson, used by Green to defend the lead after Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice lifted his goalie for an extra attacker with 5:22 remaining, skated the puck into an empty net with 3:34 to go.
“It’s always important, I think, when things aren’t going your way to find a way to win,” Green said. “When you get up like that early in the game, you know, the game’s not over. I liked how we just stuck with our game. We stayed focused, we didn’t take any penalties, and we played a solid 60 minutes of hockey.”
It was one of the Canucks’ finest hours in a season when they haven’t had enough of them.