Thatcher Demko single-handedly made this game worth watching. Or maybe single-leggedly? That can be a thing.
With other teams kicking off the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday, the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers were still playing out a largely meaningless regular season game. Apparently, no one informed Demko that it was meaningless, because he was in full-on playoff mode.
Perhaps it’s because the game was in Rogers Place, the site of his dominant performance against the Vegas Golden Knights in last year’s playoff bubble, but Demko was absolutely incredible on Saturday. Of his 31 saves on 32 shots, it felt like the vast majority were on grade-A scoring chances.
His best save, and arguably the best save of the entire season, came in the second period on Alex Chiasson.
“It was going to be a desperation play,” said Demko, “but I got my eyes on it and noticed he was in a good enough spot to raise it, so I was just trying to elevate my leg too a little bit to help give myself a chance to get a piece of it. It was kind of sitting there on the goal line for a split second. Luckily we were able to live to see another day.”
That description is vastly underselling just how incredible his save truly was. It wasn’t just that Demko got his right pad on the shot, which looked like a sure goal. It’s that he also got his skate to the post to keep the puck from going in after it hit his pad, then pulled the puck up off the line as it came agonizingly close to crossing.
This wasn’t just a lunge-across-and-hope-for-the-best save. Demko tracked the puck and intentionally raised his pad because he knew Chiasson wasn’t going to shoot along the ice, then kept his eyes on the puck the whole way to keep it from crossing the goal line.
Some claimed the puck did indeed cross the line, but Demko knew that it didn’t.
“It was close,” he agreed. “There were definitely parts of the puck that were over the line, but I knew. I had eyes on it the whole time, so I was confident that one wasn’t going to get blown down.”
For some reason, I find this so much more impressive than a glove save. Any schmo off the street can grab something, what with human beings evolving an opposable thumb and all. Manipulating your legs like that, however, is incredible.
Even if Saturday’s game was meaningless, Demko developing into a bonafide number one goaltender this season is incredibly meaningful for the Canucks.
“He’s a young guy, still relatively young for goalies,” said head coach Travis Green. “I expect him to continue to progress and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best goalies in the league.”
To my eyes, it looks like Demko already is. At least, he looked like one of the best goalies in the league when I watched this game.
- I suppose there were other things about this game that made it worth watching other than that one save by Demko. There were a whole bunch of other saves by Demko, for instance. Just before he made that save on Chiasson, Demko robbed Leon Draisaitl on a tic-tac-toe passing play and he stopped several breakaways and odd-man rushes. He was nigh-unbeatable.
- It seems a little odd that the Oilers even dressed Draisaitl and Connor McDavid for this game considering how disastrous it would be if either were injured, but it was apparently their call. What’s weirder is that both got time on the penalty kill, even if it was under a minute each. All it takes is one slap shot to the foot and the Oilers’ Stanley Cup hopes would be over in an instant.
- Really, neither played too much. The only Oilers forward that played less than Draisaitl and McDavid at 5-on-5 was Gaetan Haas, who was playing his first game in two weeks. They mostly played on the power play and each had just four shifts in the third period and none after the Canucks took a 4-1 lead.
- Weirdest play of the game: this faceoff where J.T. Miller never actually put his stick down and they dropped the puck anyways. Miller didn’t even move, evidently expecting the play to be blown dead and the puck dropped again, but the play continued, with the puck going straight to Jack Rathbone for a pretty good scoring chance.
- That was ruled a faceoff win for Haas, by the way.
- Despite Demko’s dominance, the Oilers drew first blood. While it initially looked like Adam Larsson beat Demko cleanly with a one-timer, upon careful inspection it appeared to take a minute deflection off of Jayce Hawryluk, changing direction just enough to slip under Demko’s arm instead of hitting the logo on his chest.
- The Canucks responded with a shorthanded goal in the second period. A shot went wide and zipped around the boards, giving Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat a 2-on-1. Pearson made a nifty backhand pass to Horvat that was, like Nick Wilde inadvertently admitting to felony tax evasion, on the tape.
- Horvat hasn’t typically been used much on the penalty kill — it’s one of his few areas of weakness — but he’s been called upon more frequently in recent games with all of the Canucks’ injuries. With the Canucks needing to get cheaper in the bottom-six next season, it could be something he has to do more often next season.
- “It's something that we've talked a lot about really over the last four years with Bo,” said Green. “I think penalty killing is something that takes some time to learn. You look at good penalty killers, a lot of times, veteran guys grow into that, because of hockey sense and understanding little nuances. Especially offensive guys that are young, it sometimes takes them a little while to become good penalty killers and I think Bo is an example of that, where he's slowly developing into a better penalty killer. He's always been a power play guy, and always will be, but this is part of the game that I think is growing on him. It's a dimension that I think eventually he will have, and it's good to see. We've slowly seen him progress with it. In the last few games, we've started to go with him a lot more and it's a good sign.”
- The Canucks blew the game open in the third period. They out-shot the Oilers 17-to-5 and put three pucks past Mikko Koskinen. Maybe it has something to do with McDavid and Draisaitl only getting four shifts in the third period. On the other hand, they were on the ice for two of the Canucks’ goals.
- Matthew Highmore put the Canucks ahead 2-1 with a lovely shot on a 3-on-2 rush off a great pass by J.T. Miller. Highmore put the puck more high, firing it top corner where novels keep their numbers.
- Just 16 seconds later, Travis Boyd took advantage of an Oilers turnover to make it 3-1. Jimmy Vesey knocked down the muffed clearing attempt and found Boyd alone in front. He made like a teenager avoiding his parents and went upstairs in a hurry, off the crossbar and in.
- Unlike his bottom-six compatriots, Tyler Graovac didn’t score a goal, but he did make this nifty spin move on Haas, which is pretty good too.
- A few minutes later, Highmore put the Canucks up by 4-1 with his second goal of the game, but if any goal deserves an asterisk, this one does. Highmore just swatted at a loose puck in the slot and his weak backhand somehow found its way through Koskinen, who then kicked it into his own net with his right leg. Give Highmore credit, this was easily his best game as a Canuck, but Edmonton, your goaltender — woof.
- The Oilers just have to hope that they didn’t get Demko’d by this game like the Vegas Golden Knights, whose coach flat-out admitted last season that Demko rattled their confidence and affected their ability to score in their following playoff series against the Dallas Stars.