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IWTG: An incredible performance from Thatcher Demko saves the Canucks in Game 5 against the Golden Knights

"He was awesome tonight, our best player."
graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Thatcher Demko made 42 saves, 43 if you count the Canucks season.

With Jacob Markstrom announced as “unfit to play,” Demko was the surprise starter for the Canucks’ do-or-die Game 5. It was the first playoff start of his NHL career, but he looked like an experienced veteran with dozens of NHL playoff games under his belt.

The Vegas Golden Knights were firing pucks from every angle at the young goaltender, peppering him with 43 shots and the Canucks needed every single one of his 42 saves.

“He was awesome tonight, our best player,” said Quinn Hughes, noting that Demko “goes to bed early” and “eats the right way” as part of the reason the team knew he’d be dialed in.

“I think I was lights out at maybe 10:05-10:10. These guys go to bed a little bit later than I do,” said Demko with a smile, gesturing with his head towards Brock Boeser beside him. “I like to be rested, like to know I did everything I could to be ready to go.”

He was definitely ready to go, with no indication of nerves at any point. Truly, Demko has the perfect demeanour to be a goaltender. He never gets rattled. 

As a baby, his parents handed him a rattle, but he refused to shake it. While hiking in his youth, he saw a rattlesnake, but just as it was about to rattle its tail, Demko locked eyes with it, shook his head once, and the rattlesnake nodded and slithered away. He once heard a rattling sound from the engine of his car and he immediately pulled over on the side of the highway and hitchhiked the rest of the way home.

“When you’re going into these games, you try not to think too much and just go out and play,” said Demko. “I’ve put in the work leading up to this point and you’ve just got to rely on that.”

Demko found out on Monday night that he’d be getting the start on Tuesday. Whatever injury or soreness that kept Markstrom out of the game was obviously evident well before gametime. That gave Demko plenty of time to prepare himself, but he didn’t really need any extra time: he’s been preparing himself to play at every practice and optional skate, knowing that he could be called upon at any moment.

“He’s worked hard to stay sharp,” said head coach Travis Green. “He’s a good pro, takes the job seriously, understands that when he gets in, what’s going to be expected. Give him a lot of credit: that’s not an easy spot to go into tonight, especially against a team like that, they shoot a lot of pucks at the net.”

Green isn’t wrong: 43 shots on goal and 79 shot attempts is, indeed, a lot of pucks. Demko coolly and calmly kept his eye on every one of them, as did I when I watched this game.

  • It needs to be reemphasized: the Canucks were absolutely dominated for the vast majority of this game, getting out-shot 43-to-17. The Golden Knights had more shots in the second period alone, 18, than the Canucks had all game. If not for Demko, not only would the Canucks not have won this game, but it also would have been a blowout.
  • Demko was spectacular, but the most impressive part may be just how easy he made it look. Sure, there were a few scrambly moments where the hearts of Canucks fans might have skipped several beats, but for the most part Demko just calmly went about his business, squaring up to shooters and stopping pucks, like it was just a routine day at the office and not an elimination game for him and his team.
  • Meanwhile, Markstrom was looking on during the whole game like a nervous father at a Pee Wee game. Nervous, but proud.
  • People like to say that the ice is tilted when one team is controlling play, but the ice may as well have been completely vertical for most of the second period. It took the Canucks 12:28 into the second period to get their first shot on goal, at which point the shots were 23-to-6 for the Golden Knights. Incredibly, the score was still knotted at 0-0, because Demko is a stone-cold beast.
  • Demko wasn’t going to be beaten by just any shot, so it took a monumental effort from Shea Theodore to get the game’s opening goal. Shortly after a Vegas power play, Theodore came off the bench, darted around Antoine Roussel with the puck, evaded a swinging stick check from Jay Beagle, deked around Oscar Fantenberg’s attempted shot block, and roofed the puck just under the bar.
  • Given the way the game was going, that seemed to be it. Game over. It really looked like the only way the Canucks could win was if Demko stood on his head and the Canucks got a lucky goal, maybe on a clearing attempt that took a weird bounce over Robin Lehner’s glove. Instead, the Canucks answered back immediately.
  • Quinn Hughes got the ball rolling — or the puck sliding, as it were — with a great cross-ice pass to Brock Boeser, who relayed it to J.T. Miller on the right wing. Then Boeser fought off Brayden McNabb and charged towards the net with his stick on the ice like Red Green taught him. Miller sent a hard pass right onto Boeser’s tape and he tipped it up over Lehner’s pad on the backhand. 
  • “It was a huge goal,” said Elias Pettersson. “They were controlling the game and they scored a goal. To get a goal right back the next shift was huge for us.”
  • It was also a huge goal for Boeser, who had yet to score a goal in the series. He was the Canucks’ best forward, with a team-high five shots on goal — nearly a third of their total — and was buzzing all game. With the team struggling, Green reunited Boeser with his Lotto Line compatriots, Pettersson and Miller, and it saved the game nearly as much as Demko did.
  • The change needed to be made: Pettersson’s line with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli was getting run over like a go-kart on Toad’s Turnpike. Pearson and Toffoli had their worst game of the series, struggling to connect on passes through the neutral zone. As a result, shots on goal were 9-0 for the Golden Knights with that line on the ice. 
  • “I thought [Boeser] had a lot of jump in his step,” said Green. “I thought he had a strong game tonight, he skated hard, went to the hard places. It was a big goal. As far as putting the line back together, we just needed a spark. It’s no secret we weren’t going and we put that line together for a shift and we scored.”
  • That line stayed together for the rest of the game and all three combined for the game-winning goal in the third period. Hughes kept a puck in at the point and moved the puck to Miller, who relayed it to Boeser at the point. With five skaters between him and the net, Boeser’s wrist shot somehow weaved its way through traffic like a Hollywood stunt driver and Pettersson tipped it down into the net past Lehner.
  • Despite playing a key role, Hughes didn’t get an assist on the Pettersson goal, but his assist on Boeser’s goal set a new record for most assists by a rookie defenceman in the playoffs, albeit with an asterisk given some of those assists came in the unprecedented qualifying round. What was most impressive about Hughes’ performance is that it came largely against the Golden Knights’ deadly top line of Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Max Pacioretty. Both Canucks goals came with Hughes on the ice against that line. I said going into this game that they needed to slow down Stone and Pacioretty, but the Canucks did more than that: they outscored them, and Hughes deserves a healthy chunk of the credit.
  • “Well, it’s not new to him,” said Green about Hughes playing against tough competition. “We’ve tried to bring Quinn along, not just offensively, but defensively, almost from the beginning. I think game one, even, this year, we put him out against [Connor] McDavid. We feel that he’s a guy that we had to get him into those situations if he was going to play enough minutes. Good young players adapt, they figure things out.”
  • It’s not just Hughes’ defensive play that helped neutralize that line, but that he is the best Canucks’ defenceman at transitioning the puck up ice. Hughes gave an in-depth answer regarding the team’s breakouts a few minutes into the post-game media availability, which deserves a listen. Ultimately, he’s the team’s best option for breaking the puck out and avoiding the aggressive forecheck and clogged-up neutral zone of the Golden Knights, which helps avoid the long cycling shifts of the Stone line in the Canucks’ end of the ice.
  • The purest moment of the post-game media availability came, of course, from Elias Pettersson. After Hughes’ discussion of breakouts, Pettersson said under his breath, “Good answer,” then turned to Hughes and said directly, “That was a good answer.” 
  • It was a tough night for Zach Whitecloud, who was partly playing in Game 5 and partly participating in a Three Stooges routine. In the first period, Whitecloud lined up a hit on Adam Gaudette, but the Canucks centre blew a tire and Whitecloud went careening face-first into the boards like Platform 9 ¾ was closed. Then he got flipped upside down by an accidental hipcheck from Tyler Motte in the second period. To top it off, his own teammate’s stick got caught in his skate in the third period, sending him tumbling to the ice for a third time. It was brilliant slapstick comedy, but not ideal in a playoff game.
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  • The two goals were all the scoring the Canucks needed thanks to Demko’s fabulous performance, but they were a millisecond away from a third at the end of the game. After Jay Beagle drew a penalty while clearing the puck, Bo Horvat nearly added a power play goal as the final horn sounded. In fact, it looked like the puck went in before time ran out, but the official game clock hit 0.0 seconds just before it crossed the line. 
  • Even without the goal, Horvat still leads the playoffs in goalscoring and, thanks to Demko, will get another chance to add to his total. Game 6 is Thursday night and the Canucks might need another Herculean effort from their goaltender, whether it’s Demko or Markstrom.