In a Stanley Cup playoff run few predicted would happen, the Vancouver Canucks are now preparing for a game not many people expected them to be playing just a few days ago.
Vancouver took some of the shine off the favoured Vegas Golden Knights with a 4-0-win Thursday night to force a Game 7 in their best-of-seven Western Conference second-round series. The Canucks have picked themselves up off the mat after trailing 3-1 in the series and being outscored 13-3 in their losses.
Vancouver has twice avoided elimination with backup goaltender Thatcher Demko in net after Jacob Markstrom was sidelined following Game 4 with an apparent groin injury. In his two starts Demko has stopped 90 of 91 shots, including 48 saves for the shutout. That’s the most saves by a rookie goaltender in a playoff shutout since 1956.
“I knew the circumstances when I got the call,” said the soft-spoken San Diego, Calif., native, whose only previous appearance in the last six months was 8:26 of mop-up duty during Game 1’s 5-0 loss. “I just wanted to help the team anyway I could.”
Forward Jake Virtanen, who scored the only goal Vancouver would need at 2:50 of the first period, said Demko was the life raft the Canucks needed to crawl on when they were in danger of drowning.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo recaps Thursday’s games:
“Thatcher has been our MVP both nights,” said Virtanen, who scored his second goal of the playoffs and first in seven games. “He’s standing on his head back there. He’s making some amazing saves, keeping us in games.
“You can see the confidence he has back there. He’s calm and collected, playing his game. He’s a smart goaltender. He’s making it easy for us to win games.”
Rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes and veteran forward J.T. Miller both had a goal and an assist. Captain Bo Horvat scored into an empty net. Two of the goals came off screens by reedy forward Elias Pettersson.
The series will be decided Friday under the bubble at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Like they have in most of the games the Knights used their speed and passing to control long stretches of play. Vancouver went 19:23 without a shot Thursday, but Demko made the big saves when needed and will be the boogeyman in the nightmares of Vegas players like Reilly Smith, Shea Theodore and Mark Stone.
“Their goalie is feeling it right now,” said the Knights’ Max Pacioretty, who has four goals in the series.
Demko, who minored in philosophy at Boston College while majoring in psychology, doesn’t overthink his role.
“My job is the same regardless of the score,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the puck out of the net. I’m just trying to make the saves I have to make to make sure they can find a way to win.”
Demko got plenty of help from teammates willing to sacrifice their bodies as the Canucks blocked 21 shots compared to 12 for Vegas. Vancouver forced Vegas to shoot from the side or just inside the blue line. The Canucks were also good at clearing the puck to prevent second and third chances.
“We talked a lot about defending the middle of the ice,” said Miller. “The shot totals have been pretty high, but I don’t think the grade A’s have been too crazy. We take a lot of pride in that area.”
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said his team needs to put more bodies in front of Demko.
“It’s traffic and making it tougher on him to see the puck and getting more pucks into that area with more bodies in that area,” he said.
After allowing three power-play goals in the first three games Vancouver has killed seven straight Vegas man-advantages in the last two games.
Recent Game 7’s haven’t been kind to either team.
Last year Vegas led the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in the opening round of the playoffs only to lose Game 7 in overtime.
Vancouver’s last Game 7 was a 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup final at Rogers Arena.
Hughes said what the Canucks have accomplished this series will be forgotten if they lose Friday.
“As a kid, no one talks about Game 1 or Game 2,” he said. “I think everyone dreams of Game 7.
“To give ourselves a chance, after being down 3-1, we are proud of ourselves, but we’re not satisfied.”