Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko admits he was nervous before stepping on the ice on Friday night.
The Canucks (22-21-6) were about to take on the Buffalo Sabres (24-18-6) and he was about to play in his second-ever NHL game.
“I’ve been working hard and just patiently waiting for that first chance,” said the 23-year-old.
Demko — who played a single game for Vancouver last season — was called up from the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets on Jan. 4 after the club traded backup netminder Anders Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators.
“(Friday) opened up an opportunity for me,” he said. “I’m just really excited and wanted to make the most of it.”
Demko ended up stopping 36-of-39 shots, guiding the Canucks to a 4-3 win. The performance had the crowd chanting “Dem-Ko!” in appreciation for some highlight reel-worthy stops.
“He was great. Good to see. He was one of our best players tonight,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said after the game.
Alex Edler, Sven Baertschi, Brock Boeser and Loui Eriksson all scored for Vancouver.
Bo Horvat had two assists, including one in the second period where he stripped Buffalo’s Lawrence Pilut of the puck and made a beautiful pass to Boeser in front of the Sabres net.
The right-winger tipped it in for his 16th goal of the season.
“Me shooting the puck hasn’t been working so I thought I’d give it to somebody who’s going to put it in the net,” Horvat said.
While he doesn’t have a goal since Dec. 20, Horvat did notch his 200th NHL point on Friday.
“Never when you’re playing in the NHL do you think you’ll be able to hit these kind of milestones,” he said. “It’s really exciting and it feels even better to get that win.”
Despite the victory, the Canucks simply weren’t good with the puck on Friday, Green said.
“Probably half our team didn’t play their best hockey game. And when you can not play your best and win, that’s a real bonus in the NHL,” he said.
“Our goalie gave us a good period in the third period. And we found a way to win a hockey game.”
The Canucks registered just four shots in the opening frame.
Demko kept the squad in a game that got off to an “ugly” start, said Horvat.
“That’s unbelievable. Especially at a young age, coming in. These are meaningful games and he stepped up like great players do and he played phenomenal tonight,” he said. “We owe him a lot of credit.”
But the match up wasn’t without mishaps. Late in the third period, Buffalo’s rookie defenceman Rasmus Dahlin fired a laser at the Canucks net, catching Demko in the mask.
“The puck caught me just above the eyebrow and the cage was actually touching my eyebrow and my sightlines were changed a bit,” the goalie explained.
He added that the timing was good because Vancouver had just killed off a penalty that saw the Sabres blanket him with shots.
“So it was nice. I maybe needed a little break, too. The power play was kind of buzzing there,” Demko said with a smile.
Sabres Evan Rodrigues, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart all beat the Vancouver goalie on Friday.
Buffalo netminder Linus Ullmark had 19 saves.
“For a large majority of the game we played the way we wanted to, but those mistakes we’re making are just a little too big,” Reinhart said. “I’m sure we can correct and we are going to.”
Cleaning up those mistakes will be key going forward, said Buffalo coach Phil Housley.
“Responsibility without the puck, that was the difference. But I can’t complain, we had a heck of a game,” he said.
The Sabres are now off until after the all-star break.
It’s important that the team uses the time off, Okposo said.
“The last week-and-a-half we have made some mistakes, we haven’t gotten the results we wanted and when we come back we have to push,” he said. “There’s no bones about it, we’re outside of a playoff spot right now.”
The Canucks are currently in the post-season race, holding the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
The team will be back in action on Sunday when they host the Detroit Red Wings.