Demko’s return nears with Canucks trying to hold off Oilers in race for division crown

Halford and Brough discussion on Monday night’s impressive win for the Canucks, which was a night of many milestones, and also puts them two points away from being the third-best team in club history.

VANCOUVER – When the Vancouver Canucks caught the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 21 and moved into first place in the Pacific Division on a tie-breaker, the Edmonton Oilers had started their surge after changing coaches but were 19 points behind.

A month ago, on the night Canuck starting goalie Thatcher Demko sprained ligaments in his knee, the Canucks still led the Oilers by 12.

Saturday, when the Canucks travel to Edmonton with three games remaining in what has become a historic regular season for Vancouver, their division lead could be as little as two points and self-determination for first place may be at stake. 

Even if the Oilers are upset at home on Friday night by the Arizona/Salt Lake City Coyotes, Edmonton will still go into Saturday’s summit with a game in-hand and an opportunity to press and stress the Canucks into the final week of the regular season.

The Oilers may also see the return of Demko, who fully practised Thursday at Rogers Arena and declared himself “great” and eager to play, although the target game for his return has long been the Canucks’ final home date, Tuesday against the Calgary Flames.

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Except for perhaps the fatalistic among Canucks Nation, which is pretty much all of it, few would have expected a month ago that Saturday’s game could be another defining moment for a franchise that hasn’t earned a division pennant since 2013 – the season before the National Hockey League looked at a map and created the Pacific Division as part of a geographical re-alignment of its teams.

The upcoming playoff field will be the deepest and most balanced in league history, with no over-powering teams and at least 12-14 capable of winning the Stanley Cup. So it is easy to argue in Vancouver that winning the Pacific Division doesn’t matter. 

But losing the Pacific Division certainly would matter to the team that has led it for 113 days and still has much to prove.

“I think that it would be immature to say that it’s not important,” Canuck defenceman Ian Cole said Thursday. “It would be, in my mind, revisionist history to say, ‘Oh, the division doesn’t matter.’ I think we can give ourselves home ice (in the playoffs) where I think we enjoy playing and, for the most part, thrive. And there’s obvious advantages of last change and being able to get our matchups.  But is it the be-all-end-all? Do I think if we don’t have home-ice we can’t win? No, absolutely not. Absolutely not.

“But I think that as professionals and (being) competitive, we want to win the games. And if we win these games, we win the division and that’s what our goal should be. It’s pretty cut and dry to me. Anyone that says it doesn’t matter. . . I think it does matter. So let’s just win the hockey game.”

“Our goals are much deeper and bigger than that,” centre J.T. Miller said of winning the division. “But at the same time, it shows how far we’ve come in a short amount of time. We have to remember, this is a process and a year-to-year thing. We’re just going to get better and better as the years go, and we’re learning as we go here. But this is an exciting step for our group.”

Four points ahead of the Oilers, the Canucks lost their monopoly on self-determination within the division when they lost 4-3 in overtime Wednesday to the non-playoff Coyotes soon after Edmonton hammered Vegas 5-1.

Either team can now win the division by winning out. 

Since cresting at 37-12-6 on Feb. 15, the Canucks have gone 11-10-3. Their trough, as Cole called it, has been not nearly as deep as most teams’ worst spells, such as the Oilers’ 5-12-1 start that included three losses against Vancouver by an aggregate score of 18-6.

But the timing of the Canucks’ lull is bad, exacerbated by the loss of Demko partway through a 5-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets on March 9.

And although Thursday was an excellent day for the organization, with Demko clearing the final hurdle before his return, having a starting goalie returning from injury and getting only two or three games before his inaugural run in a genuine (non-COVID) Stanley Cup tournament is far from ideal.

Still, two games are better than none.

“I’ve played close to 50 games this year,” Demko told reporters in the first media availability since his injury. “And that was a month ago. It’s not like coming off of the off-season where you haven’t played a game in three or four months and then trying to get it back. So I feel great. I feel pretty much right where I was when I went down. And, like I said, I’m excited to get back in the net for some games.

“I’ve talked to the coaching staff. Our goal since pretty much close to Day 1 was to get back to the Calgary game. Obviously, I do feel good right now. (But) the timeline that we’ve kind of been trying to follow and pushing for has been the Calgary game.

“We’ve got a lot to accomplish in this next week, so that’s going to be my main focus.”

Canuck coach Rick Tocchet was non-committal about whether Demko might return for what could be the division title game on Saturday, rather than wait until Tuesday’s game against the Flames. 

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Tocchet said Demko was “likely ahead of schedule.” But it seems unlikely the coaching staff would risk an early return of their most important player when the games that really matter don’t begin until the week after next.

“For me with him, he’s just dialed in,” Tocchet said. “I’ve never seen him happier because I think him dealing with (the injury), whatever he’s done, got whatever he had cleaned up, I think it’s really boosted his confidence level. I really believe that.”

A happy Demko, who is permanently game-faced? Really?

“Yeah, he was smiling today,” Tocchet said.

The 28-year-old goalie expressed gratitude for the Canucks’ medical staff “matching my focus level and my determination to get back. Obviously, it takes a village.”

Still tied for fourth in the NHL in wins (34), third in save percentage among starting goalies (.917), and second behind Connor Hellebuyck in goals saved above average (18.2) according to naturalstattrick.com, Demko was building a strong case for the Vezina Trophy before he was hurt.

“There’s a lot of weight, I think, to perform in the playoffs,” Demko said. “That’s when it matters. And I think we’re all excited for that opportunity to finally get in there and see what we can do.”

ICE CHIPS – Winger Brock Boeser was given a “maintenance day” Thursday but Tocchet said the 40-goal scorer should be available to play in Edmonton. . . If he does, Boeser is expected to be reunited with Miller on a line with Pius Suter. Elias Pettersson practised Thursday between Nils Hoglander and Ilya Mikheyev, while wingers Conor Garland and Dakota Joshua flanked Elias Lindholm on a re-made third line.

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