Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Vancouver Canucks took a 3-0 lead in the first period, scoring three goals in the opening 15 minutes of the game.
No, it wasn’t a rerun of last week’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, but Canucks fans could be forgiven for getting nervous. The Canucks gave up four-straight goals in that game to lose 4-3 after giving up similar 2-0 leads in a couple of their previous games.
The Winnipeg Jets weren’t coming back in this game, however — Thatcher Demko wouldn’t allow it.
Oh, and the Canucks were massively improved defensively as well.
Demko played well, making great saves when he had to, but he didn’t have to very often as the Canucks limited chances and forced most of the Jets’ shots to the outside. As a result, Demko only had to make 27 saves on 27 shots to record his first career regular season shutout, a far cry from the 48 saves he had to make against the Vegas Golden Knights last year to get his first career playoff shutout.
“I try to black out those memories,” said Nate Schmidt, probably only half-joking. “Those are selectively deleted.”
Schmidt was on the other end of Demko’s excellence in the playoffs and definitely preferred playing in front of Demko this time around.
“He looked fantastic tonight,” said Schmidt. “He was really comfortable back there, he made a lot of great plays. Anytime your goaltender can make plays on the other team's forecheck for you — he had a couple of really nice ones to get his game going in the first period — I think you have a little bit of confidence back there, it kind of leads to other parts of your game. He looked good. We needed him to be good.”
Demko was quick to push credit in the other direction, as is his wont.
“I thought the guys played really solid tonight,” he said. “We've talked about playing a full 60 and first two periods I didn't see much, obviously they’re going to push...they’re going to try to claw their way back into the game there in the third and I thought we did a good job handling that.”
It was particularly evident in the second period, which has so often been the Canucks’ downfall this season. They gave up just five shots on goal, completely throttling any momentum the Jets tried to gain with a full five-man defence clogging up the middle of the ice.
“I think over the last handful of games that our defensive side of things is coming along really nicely,” said Demko. “Tonight was kind of the pinnacle.”
It must have been a welcome relief for Demko to watch the defensive effort in front of him as he held on for his first shutout. It was certainly a relief for me when I watched this game.
- Nate Schmidt opened the scoring by electing the way of pain — specifically, pain for Mason Appleton, who he drilled with a slapshot. That took Appleton out of the play as he collapsed to the ice, allowing Schmidt to get another shot in the clear, which tipped off the stick of Andrew Topp and went there — the topp of the net, that is.
- 18 seconds later, the Canucks made it 2-0 on another Schmidt point shot. This time it deflected off a Canucks stick and it was intentional. J.T. Miller darted into the slot and tipped Schmidt’s shot down and it bounced off the ice and up over Connor Hellebuyck’s glove.
- Schmidt has been on the receiving end of some nightmare bounces this season, ones that he said he’d never seen before in his entire career. Those two good bounces for his first multi-point game must have felt like the hockey gods paying him back. Now he just has to hound them for the interest they owe him.
- “Over the last 20 games, I've seen a lot of things,” said Schmidt. “I think that it was a big moment for our group to get going early — to come out swinging right away and pretty much play that same type of game the rest of the way.”
- I don’t want to be too harsh on Jake Virtanen because I thought he legitimately played a good game, but this moment from the first period before Schmidt opened the scoring is the kind of play that drives coaches crazy and is why he never seems to last long in a top-six role. The puck was flipped out of the Jets zone and with three Jets skating downhill, Virtanen stopped moving his feet and just swiped at the puck in mid-air, hoping to knock it down. It’s a low-percentage play and led directly to a Jets 2-on-1 that Quinn Hughes fortunately defended well.
- Virtanen had a much better play on the Canucks’ third goal. After the first power play unit struggled to even gain the zone, the second unit had far more success. Virtanen took a pass from Nils Höglander to gain the zone, then protected the puck and banked it back to Tyler Myers, allowing the power play to get set up. A moment later, Höglander tipped in Myers’ point shot to make it 3-0. Like “Don’t overdo your contouring,” it was a beauty tip.
- “We went back to a four-forward look with Mysie on the top end. That unit had success last year and it was good to see them get one,” said Travis Green, who didn’t think the first unit’s issues gaining the zone were worth discussing. “We had one power play, then the second one is a little different when you have the lead, I think you're playing a little bit tentative and their team’s obviously trying to score a shorty as well...it wasn't the best looking power play, our second one, but we went one-for-two tonight and that's all that matters.”
- Höglander got the goal on the power play by just getting to the slot and tipping a point shot, but clearly he was feeling all of his oats, as he attempted a Zorro goal — otherwise known as a lacrosse goal or The Michigan — but the puck just wouldn’t settle on his stick. It’s a goal he’s well-known for after doing it in both the SHL and the World Juniors, but he hasn’t had many chances to try it in the NHL. Canucks Twitter was buzzing just from the failed attempt — it will likely spontaneously combust if he ever pulls it off.
- “It was a good opportunity to try that, but nothing happened,” said Höglander, who added that he doesn’t feel any pressure to try to pull off that move, and that he calls it a “Zorro goal,” which is what it’s called in Sweden: Zorromål.
- One reason why the Canucks successfully defended their lead is they stayed out of the box, with just one penalty the entire game. The truth is, the referees basically stopped calling any penalties, flatly ignoring even obvious calls, like Paul Stastny tripping Quinn Hughes. Stastny even stopped playing for a moment, obviously expecting a penalty, but the refs made like Elsa and let it go.
- One could argue that Bo Horvat was also hooking Stastny in the above replay, but then you’d have to admit that Stastny was pretty blatantly holding Horvat’s stick a moment before that, and then you end up with a long list of things that the referees could have called but, for some reason, didn’t.
- The Jets pushed hard in a sequence towards the end of the second period and things got a little wild with Demko losing his stick. That’s never a comfortable feeling for a goaltender. It’s like Linus losing his security blanket, except instead of stopping anxiety, it stops pucks.
- “Yeah, I was kind of all over the place there for a second,” Demko said with a chuckle. “In those moments, you're just trying to find a quick second to reset and get your balance back. I thought our guys were composed under that duress there...when the storm's coming, you just rely on getting in lanes and sagging back and protecting the middle. I thought our guys did a good job with that, helped me out.”
- Demko was at his best in the third period, where the Jets poured on the pressure and he made 15 saves, including a pair of tough saves on Blake Wheeler. The first save he made look easy, tracking a quick back-and-forth passing play on a 2-on-1 to kick away Wheeler’s shot, but the second was a lot more awkward, but just as effective, stuffing Wheeler right at the top of the crease while folding himself like an origami crane.
- The Jets pulled their goaltender with more than five minutes remaining, hoping for the miraculous comeback. Instead, Elias Pettersson scored into the empty net. He made a nice play along the boards to cut off the puck, then Brock Boeser made a quick pass off the boards to spring a Pettersson breakaway. Then, like Arsenal, he just walked it in.
- If Pettersson hadn’t scored into the empty net, maybe Demko would have instead. With a fairly safe 3-0 lead, did the thought enter Demko’s mind that he might go for goal if he got the chance? “Maybe,” he said with a smile. “I’ll leave it at that. Maybe, yeah.”