On Tuesday, Thatcher Demko played the best game of his life, making 42 saves in Game 5 to keep the Canucks alive in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It seemed impossible to ask him to repeat that performance in Game 6. So he didn’t repeat it; he bettered it.
48 hours after making 42 saves, he made 48 saves to shut out the Vegas Golden Knights and force Game 7.
That’s 90 saves in two games for Thatcher “The House” Demko, so named because when it comes to Vegas, The House always wins.
A couple days ago, the 24-year-old Demko had never started an NHL playoff game and didn’t have a single NHL shutout. Now, he’s won two starts in spectacular fashion and broke records with his first career shutout in the NHL: his 48 saves are the most ever by an NHL goaltender in a playoff shutout that ended in regulation.
It’s fair to say that it was one of the greatest single-game performances by a Canucks goaltender in the playoffs, rivalling those of Roberto Luongo and Kirk McLean. That’s not meant to be hyperbolic; Demko was just that good.
“Thatcher’s been our MVP both nights,” said Jake Virtanen. “He’s standing on his head back there and making some amazing saves, keeping us in games. You can see the confidence he has back there, he’s just calm and collected, playing his game.
“Playing Demmer way back from World Juniors and stuff, he’s just a smart goaltender. He’s making a lot of good saves and making it easy for us to win games.”
In some ways, it was like the Canucks did everything wrong after barely winning Game 5. They gave up even more shots on goal, including 22 in the third period alone when they were trying to defend their lead. They gave the Golden Knights five power plays, when staying out of the box was crucial in their previous game. They even struggled on the power play, going 0-for-4 and giving up dangerous shorthanded chances.
None of that mattered: Demko wasn’t going to be beaten on Thursday night. It was an incredible performance, but one that Demko completely downplayed.
“I’m just trying to keep pucks out of the net,” said Demko. Oh, would that it were so simple.
On Thursday, Demko kept a lot of pucks out of the net. All of them, in fact, when I watched this game.
- Demko deserves to be the first, second, and third star of this game — heck, invent a fourth and fifth star and give them both to Demko too — but you have to give credit to the Canucks for legitimately playing far better in the first two periods compared to their first two periods in Game 5. Things only really got out of hand in this game in the third period, when the Canucks already had a two-goal lead.
- The Canucks came out flying in the first period, perhaps anticipating that would be the toughest time, as the Golden Knights would be eager to bounce back after a loss. On the first few shifts, the Canucks jumped all over the Golden Knights, with the top two lines forechecking hard and creating the kind of offensive zone time that has eluded them all series. It was the clearest sign possible that this wasn’t going to be a carbon copy of Game 5.
- After a couple grinding shifts from the top-six, the fourth line came through with a goal, which is the opposite of what you would normally expect. Tyler Motte dumped the puck in, then got on his horse to beat his man to the puck on the forecheck. That freed up the puck for Jake Virtanen, who caught Robin Lehner looking the wrong way — perhaps he couldn’t take his eyes off Motte’s horse — and slid it five-hole on a wraparound to open the scoring.
- Elias Pettersson followed up Virtanen’s goal by drawing a penalty and it looked like the momentum was firmly swung in the Canucks favour. Instead, the two best chances on the power play were shorthanded chances for Reilly Smith of the Golden Knights. Fortunately, Demko doesn’t have an ounce of metal in his body, so he gave Smith nothing to work with.
- Quinn Hughes was a little off early in the series, but he just keeps getting better game-by-game. I’m not just talking offensively — I’ll get to that — but defensively as well. Alex Tuch was a terror early in the series, creating goals off the rush with his size and speed, but on one rush in the first period, Hughes erased Tuch’s rush with fantastic gap control and stick work, immediately starting the breakout the other way. Defence doesn’t get much tastier than that.
Quinn Hughes with some amazing gap control on Alex Tuch. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/D7NgzNxYlb— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) September 4, 2020
- “I don’t want to disclose anything, but I’m definitely feeling better now,” said Hughes after the game, which perhaps did inadvertently disclose something. “After a couple off days, I feel good right now.”
- The pushback from the Golden Knights was predictable and relentless. After the momentum swing on the Canucks’ power play, the Canucks went 19:20 without a single shot on goal, nearly a full period. Again, that’s how monumentally important Demko’s performance was in this game: even after that long without a shot, the Canucks were still up 1-0.
- Sometimes, it seemed like the Canucks were trying to see just how far Demko could go without giving up a goal. Midway through the second period, J.T. Miller had an appalling giveaway to Paul Stastny in the slot, but Demko alertly challenged Stastny and read his deke to the backhand perfectly, sliding across and closing up the five-hole. Like so many of his very difficult saves, Demko made it look easy.
Dreadful giveaway into the slot by Miller, but Demko bailed him out like a leaky canoe. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/EKwbul7RiR— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) September 4, 2020
- Even with Demko playing out of his mind, it seemed like just a matter of time before the Golden Knights scored. That’s when Hughes and the top line came up with a huge goal. “That was big,” said Travis Green. “A two-goal lead is a lot better than a one-goal lead, especially against a team like that.”
- The goal started, unusually, with an open-ice hit by Pettersson. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was an effective one, separating Nick Cousins from the puck. Quinn Hughes took off with the puck, gaining the Vegas zone, then circling behind the net with some neat edgework to maintain separation from Alec Martinez. He then swung the puck down to Miller, who fired from the top of the circle, beating Lehner past a Pettersson screen.
- The Canucks got another power play after the goal, but just like in the first period, the Golden Knights got the best chance out of it, with Mark Stone breaking away shorthanded. Pettersson made a fantastic play on the backcheck, getting a piece of Stone’s stick as he shot to prevent Stone from elevating the puck. It was the best backcheck since Jesse and Chester in Dude, Where’s My Car?
Pettersson attac, he protec, but most importantly he backchec pic.twitter.com/i8GpgndgWS— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) September 4, 2020
- The Canucks took the dreaded two-goal lead and made it a much more comfortable three-goal lead midway through the third on a 4-on-4. Hughes neatly gained the zone, then criss-crossed with Miller. That created some space for Hughes, who ripped a massive slap shot from the left side boards that went off the post and in. Lehner was once again screened by Pettersson and his own defenceman, Shea Theodore, who earned himself a death stare from his goaltender.
Would it have even mattered if Lehner had a clear view of the puck coming off Hughes' stick? What a bomb. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/gjMSGZ9IQC— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) September 4, 2020
- “Both of those goals, we don’t score if Petey doesn’t screen the goalie there,” said Hughes. Pettersson didn’t get any points in this game, a rarity in these playoffs, but he still had a huge impact, with the hit and screen on Miller’s goal, the screen on Hughes’ goal, the backcheck on Stone, and a myriad of other plays throughout the game.
- “Those are things we’ve touched on over the year with our young players,” said Green. “They understand, they’re coachable, that there are other parts of the game that you have to do well in order to win, some things that don’t involve goals and assists...Sometimes it takes a while for younger guys to figure those things out, but like I’ve said about him before, he wants to win, he’s a smart hockey player, he understands that it’s not just about scoring. There’s lots of other things that go into winning and he’s prepared to do that.”
- At that point, the Golden Knights started throwing everything they had at Demko, desperate for a comeback. They out-shot the Canucks 11-2 after the goal by Hughes, but to no avail. The closest they came was Smith once again getting behind the defence for a great chance, but Demko got just enough of his shot with the glove to turn it over the bar, where it bounced on the top of the net.
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- While they didn’t need it with the way Demko was playing, it was likely still a relief when Bo Horvat scored into an empty net to give the Canucks a 4-0 lead. Out of a wild scramble around the Canucks’ crease, Brandon Sutter hacked the puck away and Tanner Pearson passed it up to Horvat for his league-leading 10th goal of the playoffs.
- That was game, set, and match, but there was a little bit more drama remaining. With a couple minutes left, Virtanen got the puck in the defensive zone and chipped it out a moment before getting absolutely steamrolled by Brayden McNabb. It was a classic Kronwalling, with McNabb turning his back and butt into the check, knocking the breath out of the Canucks winger. There was an eerie silence in the empty arena as Jon Sanderson checked on Virtanen, but he appeared fine and in good spirits after the game.
Jake Virtanen shaken up by this Brayden McNabb hit #Canucks | #VegasBorn pic.twitter.com/0SoQ1gTN0C— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 4, 2020
- There’s no rest for the weary: with the compressed schedule, Game 7 is just hours away. Can Demko possibly keep his incredible performance up on the second night of back-to-backs? Can the Canucks defy the odds and send another Cup contender out of the quarantine bubble? Can the Canucks come up with an even sillier way to disguise their sticks before the start of the game to prevent foreknowledge of any lineup changes? We’ll find out soon.