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I Watched This Game: Demko and the Canucks broke the Oilers

Thatcher “Smelling Salts” Demko makes 40 saves to send Oilers into a tailspin.
The Vancouver Canucks withstood an early barrage by the Edmonton Oilers, then dominated the rest of the game.

If there’s one thing the Vancouver Canucks have that the Edmonton Oilers don’t, it's goaltending.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things the Canucks have this season that the Oilers don’t — poise, confidence, more than two wins — but the gap in goaltending really stands out. 

The Oilers were all over the Canucks in the first half of the first period. They fired a whopping 19 shots on goal in just the first 11 minutes. The Canucks had just two shots in that time. It looked like it was going to be a mirror image of the whooping the Canucks gave the San Jose Sharks a couple of games ago but for one thing: Thatcher Demko.

Sure, the Oilers got one of their 19 shots past Demko but that was it. All they had to show for their utter dominance on the shot clock was a 1-0 lead. And then the Canucks pushed back and the Oilers fell apart.

Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner gave up three goals on just eight shots in the first period and that third goal stood up as the game-winner. That was the primary difference in the game: the Canucks had Demko and the Oilers didn’t.

“Demmer does Demmer things,” said head coach Rick Tocchet, adding. “Demmer is like smelling salts. We woke up after Demmer made about five, six, seven unreal saves.”

It breaks the spirit to face a brick wall like Thatcher “Smelling Salts” Demko, especially when you look at your own net and see a pile of loose shale in the crease. Connor McDavid must have been looking at Demko like Homer Simpson looking at the picture of the barbecue pit and crying out, “Why doesn’t mine look like that?”

After the Canucks weathered the storm behind Demko’s nigh-impenetrable brick-walled storm shelter, they came out of hiding and took over the game. They dismantled the Oilers, leaving them utterly mantleless. Now the Oilers will have nowhere to hang their Christmas stockings.

I saw the Canucks preemptively ruin the Oilers’ Christmas when I watched this game.

  • The Oilers did manage to open the scoring on the power play. Filip Hronek and Ilya Mikheyev failed to get the puck out at the blue line on the penalty kill, extending the Oilers’ zone time and the puck eventually popped out to Mattias Ekholm, who drilled a slap shot inside the far post. Missing a detail like that could have made Hronek and Mikheyev the goats of this game — instead, it’s a minor footnote on a big win.
  • The Canucks replied against the flow of play thanks to a sneaky Andrei Kuzmenko, who took a spill into the boards in the offensive zone and made sure he didn’t get noticed when he rejoined the play, slipping in behind the defence to pick up a stretch pass from Hronek. Quinn Hughes came flying into the zone to join Kuzmenko and picked up a drop pass to jump into space on the left side. His backdoor pass to Mikheyev was tipped in for an own goal by Vincent Desharnais.
  • At the start of the game, it seemed like the Canucks had forgotten how to break out the puck but then the third line executed a perfect transition play to give the Canucks the lead. Ian Cole moved the puck up to Pius Suter, who found Dakota Joshua cross-ice for a zone entry crispier than a brand-new $50 bill. Joshua made a slick return pass to Suter as he jumped into the slot, completely unmarked, and he snapped the puck right through Skinner.
  • “It started with Colesy. He saw they were still changing, so he just gave it right away to me and I had so much room in the neutral zone,” said Suter. “And then Dak made a real nice backhand pass in the middle there.”
  • It felt like Suter could have had three or four goals. He nearly slipped a puck five-hole on a second period chance, got robbed on a setup by Elias Pettersson in the third, then hit the post on another chance late in the third. “I think I should have definitely had one more,” lamented Suter. “Sometimes, it happens that way. You just keep going.” 
  • The two goals were a huge momentum swing as the Oilers, who had 19 shots in the first 11 minutes, had just one for the rest of the first period. As the Canucks poured on the pressure, the Oilers lost their discipline — not for the first time — and Darnell Nurse put the Canucks on the power play. Eight seconds later, J.T. Miller hit Brock Boeser with a shot and Boeser punched it in for the 3-1 lead.
  • “Honestly, it was pretty lucky,” said Boeser. “I didn’t even know I scored until the crowd started celebrating.”
  • Boeser said the puck hit him, “Right in the...stomach,” with a pause so pregnant it gave birth to twins before he finished his sentence. The puck did not hit him in the stomach.
  • A subplot to this game was the ongoing battle between Nils Höglander and Mattias Ekholm. Höglander was a pain in the neck and/or buttocks of the Oilers all game but particularly the neck/buttocks of Ekholm, who took an undisciplined penalty on him at the end of the first, then went down easily to draw one of his own on Höglander in the second. 
  • “I think Högs was one of our best forwards in the all-Canadian year and I think he’s just starting to get his confidence back,” said Boeser. “He’s been so good with the puck in the offensive zone and he’s a little pest getting under guys’ skins and that’s big for our team.”
  • The Canucks were like Willy Wonka in the first intermission, saying “Strike that, reverse it,” after the Oilers out-shot them 20-8 in the first period. They came out and dominated the second, out-shooting the Oilers 19-8, matching their advantage on the scoreboard with a territorial advantage.
  • The Oilers got the first goal of the second period, though, albeit a completely bogus one that I’m still a little stunned they allowed to stand. Demko left the puck for Mark Friedman behind the net, then stood in place as Dylan Holloway skated right through his right pad, tripping him. That left the net wide open for Leon Draisaitl to score and left everyone’s mouths wide open as the goal wasn’t reviewed and overturned.
  • Demko spoke for a long time with referee Kevin Pollock during the next TV timeout, looking for an explanation and he didn’t seem overly satisfied by whatever explanation he received. “Yeah, we talked,” said Demko after the game. “But I don’t care. It’s two points.”
  • Höglander restored the two-goal lead with none other than his nemesis, Ekholm, on the ice. Sam Lafferty fully cheated off a defensive zone faceoff, jumping inside the circle long before the puck was dropped. That gave him and Höglander the jump to win the puck and break the other way, aided by a truly atrocious pinch by Evan Bouchard. Lafferty forced a rebound and Höglander sent the puck just under the bar where Mama keeps the baseball bat.  
  • Once again, the Oilers got the first goal of the third period, only this time it was actually disallowed. Demko uncharacteristically spilled out a rebound and Holloway chipped it over his pad. Before it could go into the net, however, the crease-crashing Warren Foegele kicked the puck in, causing the goal to be overturned. It was, to be blunt, an impressively stupid play.
  • You have to like Mark Friedman, who quietly led the Canucks in corsi in this game. He's the definition of a no-frills defenceman, like a no-name brand player wearing a yellow shirt that says “defenceman” in lowercase black letters. He’s almost as good as the name brand, but cheaper and less flashy. Just look at this simple, but effective defensive play as he keeps a good gap, gets stick on puck, and angles his man to the outside. Beautiful.
  • At this point, Connor McDavid was completely losing his composure. He crosschecked Miller in the side of the head at one point without receiving a penalty, then ran over Suter long after the puck was gone, finally earning himself a trip to the sin bin, with Leon Draisaitl somehow getting a ten-minute misconduct to boot. McDavid desperately needs Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop to yell at him about being soft and lacking discipline.  
  • Miller scored on the ensuing power play, firing a laser beam off the post and in that went in and out so quickly the refs missed it. The horn sounded a few moments later, indicating that the NHL Situation Room in Toronto had reviewed it and confirmed it was a goal. That means at least one person in Toronto stayed up late enough to watch this game.
  • At one point, McDavid tripped over the red line and fell down completely away from the play. It was mildly amusing, so I thought I'd share the only clip I could get of it, so that you too may be mildly amused.
  • Late in the third period, Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said something the referee didn’t like and earned himself not just a two-minute bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct but a game misconduct, forcing Woodcroft to leave the bench. That doesn’t happen too often but Tocchet said it wasn’t the first time he’d seen that.
  • “It was in Pittsburgh when Mike Sullivan got kicked out,” said Tocchet, who was an assistant under Sullivan with the Penguins. “I had to coach for, I think it was about a minute.”
  • The Oilers’ lack of discipline continued with a dumb Nurse penalty on Höglander. Despite the three-goal lead, the Canucks still sent out the first power play unit, which felt like a distinct “eff you,” particularly after McDavid’s butthurt comments after they used the first unit late in game one’s 8-1 drubbing of the Oilers. 
  • The first power play unit threw the puck around with impunity. Hughes set up Pettersson with what looked like a grade-A scoring chance but he eschewed the chance to shoot and instead set up a tap-in for Boeser to cap off the win. It looked like a pass Henrik Sedin would make.
  • “Crazy as it is, I think he’s a playmaker before he’s a goalscorer,” said Boeser with a grin when asked about Pettersson passing up a chance to score to give him an open net. “I think that’s how he’s always been. That was a nice play by him, obviously.”
  • One additional thing that the first unit accomplished was moving Elias Pettersson into sole possession of first in the NHL in points with 21, Quinn Hughes into a tie for second with 20 points, and Brock Boeser into sole possession of second in the league in goals with 10. No, you’re not dreaming. Yes, this is real life.