I Watched This Game: Thatcher Demko stymies Sabres with 36 saves in first start of the season

Canucks 4 - 3 Sabres

Pass it to Bulis

Even with the time he’s missed due to injuries, Elias Pettersson has few competitors for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year this season. He has 11 more goals than the next best rookie and 16 more points. The argument for Pettersson is more than just points, however; it’s the overall impact on the Canucks that makes him not just the best rookie, but one of the most valuable players in the league.

If Pettersson does have any competition, it’s Rasmus Dahlin, who was in town Friday night with the Buffalo Sabres.

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A mid-season poll of 20 writers from the Professional Hockey Writers Association unanimously selected Pettersson as the top rookie in the NHL. He understandably received all 20 first-place votes. Dahlin finished in second place in the poll, well ahead of any other candidates, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Pettersson leads all rookies in scoring, but Dahlin leads all rookie defencemen. His five goals and 26 points in 48 games puts him on pace for 44 points. The last two defencemen to win the Calder, Aaron Ekblad and Tyler Myers, had 39 and 48 points, respectively.

On top of that is the impact Dahlin is having on the Sabres, helping them into playoff contention after seven straight seasons of missing out, most of them in the NHL’s basement. Dahlin is averaging over 20 minutes per game, second among rookies behind Miro Heiskanen, and his ice time has been climbing steadily. Against the Canucks on Friday, he played over 25 minutes.

It looked like Pettersson might return for this game to face his Calder competition, but he and the Canucks decided to keep him out of the lineup for one more game to ensure he returns at 100%. That meant we were robbed of seeing the two former World Junior teammates go head to head.

Fortunately, the Canucks had another rookie waiting in the wings to take on Dahlin: goaltender Thatcher Demko. The Canucks won the rookie battle when I watched this game.

  • Dahlin and Demko almost literally went head-to-head at one point: it was more puck-to-head, as a rising one-timer from Dahlin nailed Demko in the mask, denting his cage. Demko was forced to go with his backup mask, though the original mask was still the mask of record for the game-winning goal, so earns the win.



  • Demko was outstanding all game, making some incredible reaction saves off blocked shots and rebounds. Early in the second period, he flashed out his right pad to rob Jeff Skinner (who is second in the NHL in goals), then did the same on Marco Scandella in the third. Demko finished with 36 saves on 39 shots, including 16 saves to shutout the Sabres in the third period and bring home the win.



  • The Sabres opened the scoring thanks to one of the more bizarre things we’ve seen in a Canucks game this season: they botched a line change and ended up with four forwards on the ice and just one defenceman. Really, it was a decent second power play unit: Derrick Pouliot, Jake Virtanen, Brandon Sutter, Antoine Roussel, and Sven Baertschi. Unfortunately, it was even-strength.
  • Here’s what happened: when Loui Eriksson went for a change, two left wings jumped on to replace him — Sven Baertschi and Antoine Roussel. When Erik Gudbranson came on for Troy Stecher a moment later, he saw he was the sixth skater and got back on the bench to avoid a penalty. Chris Tanev saw Gudbranson come off, noticed Pouliot was the only defenceman on the ice, and jumped on himself until the bench yelled at him to get off again. Honestly, the too many men call might have been preferable.
  • The source of the confusion appears to be that Travis Green shook up the lines, but it wasn’t clear on the bench. Baertschi started the game on a line with Sutter and Jake Virtanen, which is why he came on for Eriksson. After the goal, Roussel spent the rest of the game on Sutter’s line, so had likely been told to go on with that line on their next shift, so he jumped on the ice when he saw Eriksson changing too. It was an intermediate state between the two line combinations, but sublimation is preferred when it comes to hockey.
  • During that shift, no one seemed sure who should be the “defenceman.” Baertschi took up netfront duty, but then bolted for the point when he saw an open man — a big no-no for a defenceman — and Roussel spotted Rasmus Ristolainen open in the slot to late to prevent him from kicking the puck backdoor to Evan Rodrigues for the goal.
  • It was a rough game overall for Roussel, as shots were 13-0 for the Sabres when he was on the ice at 5-on-5. His move to the Sutter line was a demotion from the Horvat line.
  • The Canucks seemingly had nothing going offensively in the first period — they had just four shots on goal — but a strong shift by the fourth line created the Canucks’ first sustained pressure in the Sabres zone. When the Sabres finally cleared, the Canucks’ first line moved right back in. Horvat got the puck down low, then set up Edler for the point shot, a wormburner that slipped just inside the post.



  • The Canucks made it two goals on four shots in the first thanks to a prodigious play by Pouliot. Horvat’s attempted pass on a zone entry was intercepted, but Pouliot followed up and took the puck between two Sabres at the blue line, then evaded the poke checks of two more Sabres as he cut wide before finding Baertschi at the backdoor with an unbelievable backhand pass. That might be Pouliot’s best play as a Canuck.



  • The Sabres tied the game early in the second period. After Horvat gave the puck away at the Canucks’ blue line, extending a Sabres possession, Pouliot lost a puck battle down low and Gudbranson lost Kyle Okposo coming off the boards. Okposo took a pass from Johan Larsson and backhanded it past Demko’s blocker.
  • Fortunately for Horvat and the Canucks, the Sabres were handing out pucks in the defensive zone like free pens at a job fair. Lawrence Pilut missed Ristolainen with a backhand pass, giving it away to Horvat in front of the net, who caught goaltender Linus Ullmark (and play-by-play man John Shorthouse) by surprise with his pass to Boeser for the tap-in goal.



  • The Sabres tied it up again when Boeser got tired at the end of a shift that lasted a minute and 15 seconds. Boeser looked exhausted and he didn’t even see when Sam Reinhart snuck behind him and went to the front of the net. By the time Boeser spotted him, he had nothing left in his legs, leaving Reinhart with all the space he needed to beat Demko with a spinning backhand.
  • I’m not saying Nikolay Goldobin would have been a healthy scratch next game if he did the same thing Boeser did, but we can’t really test that as Goldobin was a scratch for this game.
  • Josh Leivo had a strong game, with nine shot attempts — six of them on goal — and a team-leading 60% corsi. He was hard on the forecheck, created a breakaway for himself, and set up Loui Eriksson for the game-winning goal. When Leivo came out from behind the net, he anticipated Ullmark’s pokecheck from a previous attempt to cut in front, and evaded it to centre for Eriksson. With Ullmark committed to the poke, Eriksson had half the net at which to shoot.



  • Late in the third period, the Sabres poured on the pressure like maple syrup on a waffle, but, like a pat of butter refusing to melt that is blocking the final square and preventing full syrup coverage, Demko stood strong and kept the Sabres from filling the net. This extended metaphor brought to you by waffles: Waffles! Eat one today!


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