Canucks’ playoff ascent gets tougher with Demko’s injury

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joined Canucks Talk to discuss what he knows about Thatcher Demko's mysterious injury after Game 1, that will keep him out of Game 2 vs. the Predators, why we think it's a new injury, but timeline is not currently known.

VANCOUVER — If things weren’t hard for the Vancouver Canucks, they wouldn’t be the Vancouver Canucks.

Finally back in the real Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015, the electric buzz from Sunday’s Game 1 victory over the Nashville Predators was abruptly unplugged Tuesday morning with news that starting goalie Thatcher Demko is injured.

The Vezina Trophy candidate who missed five weeks with a knee injury late in the season was alarmingly absent from the Canucks’ optional morning skate ahead of Game 2 against the Predators Tuesday night, and Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman reported that he was “hearing Thatcher Demko (is) injured and questionable for the rest of the series.”

Demko’s absence doesn’t automatically torpedo the Canucks’ chances of winning a non-pandemic playoff round for the first time since Vancouver lost the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. But it makes their path far more difficult and could prove fatal to the team’s championship aspirations after a 50-win regular season.

Since joining the National Hockey League in 1970, the Canucks haven’t won the Stanley Cup and they are the only franchise that is 0-3 in finals.

The Canucks have had to deal with the loss of their starting goalies in their last three playoff appearances: Jacob Markstrom in the 2020 Edmonton bubble, Ryan Miller in a 2015 first-round loss to the Calgary Flames and Cory Schneider in a 2013 sweep by the San Jose Sharks.

Ironically, Demko’s big breakthrough came four years ago when he was spectacular in relief of Markstrom before the Canucks’ lost their second-round series in seven games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Canucks coach Rick Tocchet confirmed Demko is hurt and that Casey DeSmith will start Game 2.

“We’re going to evaluate him today on something,” Tocchet told reporters about Demko. “It wasn’t the old injury, and that’s all I’ve really got for you guys. It’s a day-to-day thing.”

DeSmith is an experienced, capable backup, but has had only one playoff start in his five NHL seasons. He also lost form after making seven straight starts following Demko’s last injury on March 9.

DeSmith did end his regular season on a positive note, stopping 32 of 33 shots 10 days ago in Edmonton when the Canucks beat the Oilers 3-1 to essentially clinch the Pacific Division.

But he struggled with the starter’s workload in Demko’s absence and lost at least one start down the stretch to minor-league call-up Arturs Silovs, the 23-year-old who helped Latvia win its first-ever medal at the 2023 world championships and is in line to succeed DeSmith as the Canucks’ No. 2 goalie next season.

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Obviously, the seriousness of any injury to Demko is paramount to conjecture about ramifications for the Canucks.

With up to six more games against the Predators, can the Canucks win three more times without Demko? Absolutely.

After the NHL All-Star break, Vancouver was second in the NHL with only 26.1 shots surrendered per game and fifth in five-on-five puck possession. The decline in second-half scoring for the Canucks forced the team to further refine its systems play under Tocchet and become one of the league’s best defensively.

The team still possesses some outstanding offensive players in J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, and has Norris Trophy-favourite Quinn Hughes anchoring a big, experienced blue line.

And using DeSmith (and possibly Silovs) won’t create the mismatch in goal that some will think, given Nashville starter Juuse Saros’ mediocre regular season. The two-time All-Star posted a save percentage of .906 this season that was massively below his career average of .917, and he looked poor on Elias Lindholm’s shot that beat him in Game 1.

After returning from injury with solid performances in the Canucks’ final two regular-season games, Demko finished with a save percentage of .918. The 28-year-old stopped 19 of 21 shots in Sunday’s 4-2 win, but was unavailable to the media post-game due to medical treatment.

Demko then did not participate in Monday’s optional practice.

DeSmith was 12-9-6 in the regular season and beat the Predators 5-2 in Nashville on Dec. 19. And while his overall save percentage was .896, the 32-year-old’s five-on-five save rate of .923 actually matched Demko’s.

So, this is not yet a disaster for the Canucks, even if it may become so. But Tuesday morning’s sombre news certainly feels like yet another ambush of a luckless team whose fan base has learned to live with the constant uneasiness of impending doom.

Every playoff forecast for Vancouver, however optimistic or muted, was predicated on Demko providing world-class goaltending. He is essential for the Canucks to have any chance at ending that painful and ponderous, five-decade wait for the Stanley Cup.

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