Canucks’ Thatcher Demko has chance to prove strength of mental game ahead of playoffs

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko and head coach Rick Tocchet confirm that Demko has recovered from his knee injury and ready to make his first start in over a month against the Calgary Flames.

“There’s a ceiling on our physical capacities. There’s no ceiling on mental capacity. You can always just keep building in that regard. The guys that are great goalies or have been great goalies. . . that’s kind of what they’re always preaching. It’s all up top.”

Thatcher Demko, January, 2022

VANCOUVER — In the 53 weeks before Thatcher Demko sprained his knee last month, the Vancouver Canucks’ starter displayed the technical and physical abilities that make him one of the best and most efficient goaltenders in the hockey universe.

In the next couple of weeks — and, he hopes, long beyond — Demko has the chance to show the extent of his mental capacities and the strength of the mind that drives his game.

After missing 14 games with his knee injury, Demko is expected to finally return to the crease Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames in Game 81 of Vancouver’s regular season — the second-to-last game the Canucks have to prepare for the franchise’s most important playoff appearance since losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

The timing of Demko’s injury was, as my analytics friends like to say, sub-optimal.

But the general preoccupation with the low number of reps the 28-year-old goalkeeper has to prepare for his first non-COVID playoffs largely ignores a more vital factor in Demko’s return: his mental strength.

For better or worse, the goalie from San Diego has always been a deep thinker. When he graduated high school a year early to enrol at Boston College, it was a degree in applied psychology he undertook. There was a philosophy minor, which included a religious studies course one summer because Demko wanted to understand our fracturing world a little better.

Demko knows how to think. He knows how to focus.

The lack of a runway for him ahead of the playoffs heightens the importance of his mental preparation in dealing with the immediate necessity to perform well and then cope with the great unknown of the playoffs to come.

“I mean, as a goalie, we have one job: just stop the puck,” Demko said after moving away from the media herd following Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “We’re not thinking about systems or different strategies and things like that. If the puck comes to me, I’ve got to try and get in the way of it. It’s pretty simple.

“I can’t speak on (playoff hockey) too much because my only playoff experience is in the bubble. But I think we’re all high-performance athletes and we’re all kind of geared to focus on the task at hand. Obviously, the atmosphere is going to raise the intensity level. That’s kind of just inherently how it’s going to be. And I have high hopes for our group and for myself as far as being able to rise to the occasion.”

None of the Canucks’ core players except for veteran centre J.T. Miller has experienced the emotional frenzy and physical ferocity of actual playoff hockey in the National Hockey League, and this inexperience is a genuine issue the team must navigate.

Coach Rick Tocchet and several more experienced Canucks have been talking for weeks about this theme.

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But beyond the emotional charge, the game doesn’t change for goalies during the playoffs nearly as much as it does for skaters. Opponents will try to physically obliterate Canuck defenceman Quinn Hughes. Scorers Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are going to find it exponentially more difficult (and painful) to play in front of the net. Everyone’s battle level must go up. The game gets faster.

But for goalies, the challenge is unchanged: see the puck, stop the puck, block out everything else.

“I would say that’s a very fair assumption,” Canuck backup Casey DeSmith said. “The skaters have to deal with the extra physicality, the extra intensity, especially the physical aspect. Goalies, yeah, the game kind of comes to you and you have your crease and you have your net to cover. You know, there might be a couple of extra bodies in front and there might be a little bit of extra fighting for the net front. But I think in general you tend to see playoffs be more defensive-oriented than regular season, and I think that goalies can really thrive in that (situation).”

Despite spending 37 days on long-term injured reserve, Demko remains seventh among NHL goalies with 34 victories in 49 starts, and his .917 save rate is second among starters to Connor Hellebuyck’s .922 in Winnipeg. The Canuck is second in goals-saved-above-average in all situations, according to naturalstattrick.

As if clinching the Pacific Division title isn’t a big enough emotional lift for the Canucks, the return of Demko provides a further boost. 

“Yeah, I think that’s a huge part,” Tocchet told reporters. “Since he’s been out, he’s at the rink twice a day. He’s by himself sometimes with a therapist. He’s here at 7 am, here. . . at 7 pm. He’s worked really hard to get to this position. Like, really hard. He has probably accelerated the (recovery) process because he worked so hard. I think that’s contagious. It just shows other players, you know, the dedication and how bad he wanted to come back and help this team.

“The big-time goalies, you can just tell when there’s pressure that hits you, they’re not flipping and flopping. They’re not diving all over. They continue with their style. It doesn’t matter if the team’s all over us or they’re not, (Demko) stays who he is. That’s why I love him — that he is who he is during any part of the game.”

Any game. Any time.

“I think if there’s anyone who could just step right back in and be a world-class goaltender in the playoffs, it’s Demmer,” DeSmith said. “He has all the physical tools; that is not a news flash for anyone. But mentally, I think maybe this was a good break, a good re-set after a really great year but a really long year. I’m under the impression that he’s probably the freshest guy in the room. Mentally, he’s really pumped to be back, excited to get back in the net and play games and be part of the team again, and carry this team like he had for so long this year. I have all the faith in the world in him. Everybody does.”

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