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IWTG: Despite Demko's heroics, Canucks fall short in Game 7 against the Golden Knights

"The Stanley Cup’s hard to win. It should hurt when you lose."
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graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The Canucks weren’t supposed to make the playoffs this season. They weren’t supposed to beat the defending Stanley Cup Champions that finished first in the Western Conference this season. They weren’t supposed to have a chance against the Vegas Golden Knights.

They definitely weren’t supposed to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 with their backup goaltender in net.

And yet, this Canucks team did exactly that. They made the playoffs, beat the St. Louis Blues, and were six minutes away from stunning the Golden Knights thanks to yet another magnificent performance from Thatcher Demko.

Sure, it took some bizarre and unlikely circumstances. The abrupt end of the regular season came just when the team was trending in the wrong direction. The long break before the playoffs began gave the team time to recover from injuries. The Blues shot themselves in the foot by relying on Jordan Binnington, who the Canucks kept lighting up, instead of turning to Jake Allen, who won the only two games of the series for the Blues.

Then, against the Golden Knights, there was yet another unlikely and stunning circumstance. With their season MVP, Jacob Markstrom, injured, the Canucks' backup came up with a legendary performance: 122 saves on 124 shots in the first three playoff starts of his NHL career, all while facing elimination.

Whatever the circumstances, however, the Canucks kept finding ways to win. Every time they were counted out, they refused to quit. Along the way, they made believers out of a lot of doubters and gave fans real hope for the future.

“I don’t think many people thought we would be a goal away from going to the semifinals,” said head coach Travis Green. “What our team has gone through, the mental part, the physical part, it’ll help our group. It’ll help us next year, it’ll help us in five years. There’s not many times you go into a playoffs with 10 guys playing their first playoff game and you win a Stanley Cup… This was a good experience for our guys and they’ll be a lot better for it.”

Did it end the way the Canucks and their fans wanted it to? Of course not, but sometimes the journey is worth it even if you never quite reach your destination. The Canucks got farther than anyone expected and they did it almost entirely on the backs of their youth, the future of the team.

Their two best players, at least until Demko arrived over the last three games, were also their two youngest: Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

“They were unbelievable for us all playoffs,” said Bo Horvat. “Not only on the scoresheet, but doing little things, like blocking shots and those two goals don’t go in last game if Petey doesn’t screen in front. Those are the type of guys you win with, those are the type of guys you want on your team if you want to go far in the playoffs. And this is just their first playoff taste. 

“The best is yet to come.”

I watched this game.

  • Considering the Canucks were out-shot 36-to-14, this IWTG is going to be pretty Demko-heavy. He was brilliant for the third straight game. At this point, Jim Benning could probably call up Kelly McCrimmon and trade Demko to the Golden Knights for Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, and a first-round pick and McCrimmon would be crowing to Vegas fans that they just acquired “the best goaltender in the known universe.”
     
  • Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So, with all the shots the Canucks didn’t take in this game, imagine how many shots the Canucks didn’t miss. Really, they dominated that game in shots not missed, which is a statistic that analytics folks need to start tracking.
     
  • Over the last 74 hours, Thatcher Demko has made 122 saves. Somehow, his 33 saves on 34 shots in this game were even more impressive than his 48-save shutout in Game 6. Perhaps it’s because his Game 7 performance came on the second night of back-to-backs or because the Golden Knights seemingly never left the Canucks’ end of the ice.
     
  • Alternatively, maybe it’s because Demko was forced to make far more acrobatic saves in this game. The Canucks looked completely out of gas and rebounds that were cleared away in previous games turned into dangerous second-chance opportunities for the Golden Knights. And yet, Demko kept coming up with save after save.
     
  • It started early in the first period, with Demko stymying Paul Stastny with a stunning toe save at the top of the crease. Demko went into the full splits to slide across and take away a sure goal.
  • Demko robbed Stastny again early in the second period on a similar play. This time, Stastny was able to elevate the puck, but Demko stretched across with his glove to stop him. Then he turned Reilly Smith away on a breakaway, just getting enough of the puck with his glove to send it over the crossbar. I haven’t seen a backup with this many saves since Pixar got paranoid after accidentally deleting Toy Story 2.  
     
  • The Canucks managed just two shots on goal in the first period, both long shots from defencemen. It was a sure sign that it was going to be a long night for Demko, but he made it a long night for the Vegas shooters as well, who looked repeatedly confused and despondent that they couldn’t get the puck behind Demko.
     
  • At the other end of the ice, Robin Lehner saw a lot less action, facing just 14 shots. Improbably, he still had the biggest save of the game. Tyler Myers sprung a 2-on-1 with a great stretch pass to Bo Horvat, who showed shot before swinging the puck across to Brock Boeser. Lehner looked down and out, but he somehow got his glove across to commit highway robbery on Boeser.
  • It’s easy to imagine an alternate timeline where Boeser scores on that chance. The Golden Knights might have come completely unraveled after dominating the Canucks so thoroughly only to end up down 1-0. The Vegas bench, instead of chirping the Canucks with childish taunts, would have turned on their own, calling each other “pipsqueak” and “chubby” and “a scallywag with poor penmanship.” Alas, we remain in our own timeline.
     
  • Demko’s wildest save didn’t even look like a save at first. There was a wild scramble in the Canucks crease midway through the second. Demko was a full-on snow angel trying to cover the puck, but it eventually came out to Nate Schmidt, who drilled a one-timer towards the upper quadrant of the goal. At first, I assumed it hit one of the half-dozen bodies in front, but the replay showed Demko throwing his glove and left pad up in desperation and somehow making the save.
  • If it’s still not clear that was a save, watch the puck come out from behind Pettersson. Demko got his glove on the puck and turned it aside. It was intentional too: he’s up on his elbow and has eyes on the puck the whole way. Incredible.
     
  • With Vegas dominating, the last thing they needed to do was start taking runs at the Canucks, but Ryan Reaves evidently never got the memo. He took a healthy run at Tyler Motte and hit him in a very unhealthy way, picking Motte’s head with no body contact, sending him spinning to the ice. That earned Reaves a match penalty: he was gone from the game and the Canucks got a five-minute power play.
  • As crazy as it seemed, the Canucks still had a chance to win the game. Just like the San Jose Sharks last year, who also came back from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7, the Canucks had a five-minute power play that wouldn’t end even if they scored. This was their opportunity to get at least one goal, potentially more. Instead, they managed just one shot on goal.
     
  • That was essentially the game. The Canucks got one more power play midway through the third period, but after they couldn’t even muster more than one shot on a five-minute major, it seemed impossible that they would come up with a power play goal on a two-minute minor.
     
  • Demko kept making incredible saves to keep his team in the game, even as the exhausted Canucks kept turning the puck over. Oscar Fantenberg had a turnover at the blue line, but Demko came up with two big saves, getting a blocker on a point-blank rebound attempt by Jonathan Marchessault. Then Boeser failed to clear and Demko had to scramble again, getting his skate blade on a puck to prevent a goal by Smith. 
  • It couldn’t last forever. The Golden Knights kept the Canucks running around in their own zone to the point that Chris Tanev accidentally ran over Quinn Hughes, forcing J.T. Miller to take a hooking penalty to prevent a Grade-A scoring chance by Hughes’ man. The subsequent power play lasted just five seconds. The puck came back to Shea Theodore off the faceoff and his wristshot found its way through traffic into the top corner of the net. Demko never even had a chance to see it.
     
  • Amazingly, the Canucks still had a chance. Myers turned into a puck-lugging machine, skating the puck through the neutral zone with powerful strides to try to create just one goal. He came agonizingly close, sending a backdoor pass to Tyler Toffoli with an open side, but Toffoli tipped it just wide on the backhand.
     
  • Still, Demko kept stopping the puck, trying to keep the Canucks in the game. He had one more giant save in him, robbing Schmidt alone in the slot, as Myers, perhaps exhausted from his forays up the ice, couldn’t get back to check him.
  • The Golden Knights added two empty net goals to seal the victory, winning 3-0. There was nothing more Demko could do but watch from the bench. He couldn’t have done any more than he did. The Canucks wouldn’t have even been in Game 7 without him. But there’s one thing he couldn’t do: score goals.
     
  • It was a tough way for the season to end for the Canucks, who truly believed that they could go all the way and win the Stanley Cup. They left it all on the ice and eventually they had nothing left.
     
  • “It obviously hurts,” said Green. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are upset right now and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The Stanley Cup’s hard to win. It should hurt when you lose.”