BOSTON – Thatcher Demko has been anointed.
Boston College’s freshman goaltender, whose arrival was anticipated well before he landed at the Heights, put in possibly the best performance of his young college career Monday night, making 27 saves on 28 shots to help BC to a 3-1 win over Boston University in the Beanpot semifinals.
It was Demko’s 12th appearance of the season, and his fifth straight start. He and junior Brian Billett (Brunswick, Maine) began the season in a rotation, and Billett was the de facto No. 1 for BC while Demko was away at the World Juniors. Billett has had a fine season, posting a .920 save percentage over 15 games.
But after Monday’s victory, it seems obvious that the job is Demko’s, and his impressive outing caused coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) to compare him with one of the greatest goaltenders in the program’s history.
York was asked about how important it would be for Demko to play on a big stage like TD Garden, given the Eagles’ title aspirations.
“It means an awful lot to his self-confidence, but he’s been a good goaltender for a lot of years, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that he could handle something like this and play well,” York said. “I think Thatcher, as I watch him, he’s getting more confident. He handles the puck now, and he reminds me a lot of Cory Schneider at the same age.”
As comparisons go, there aren’t many more complimentary than that one. In three years with Boston College, Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.) racked up records and awards, as well as two appearances in the national championship. Schneider still holds the BC record for career shutouts (15), and his 2.09 career goals against average is third all-time at the school.
|(Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)|
So it was certainly high praise from York to put Demko in that company, though the longtime coach may have been simply comparing Demko at the midpoint of his freshman year to Schneider when he was at the same point. Like Demko with Billett, Schneider split time with Matti Kaltiainen during his rookie season, going 13-1-4 with a .916 save percentage.
The next year, 2005-06, Schneider took over as BC’s No. 1 goaltender, and never looked back. It remains to be seen if Demko will be the Eagles’ go-to guy from here on out, but his performance in his first Beanpot game certainly made a strong case.
Demko wasn’t perfect – the high-octane BC offense rarely needs its goaltender to be – but he was very good. After two relatively worry-free periods, he was pressed into action in the third as BU started to gain traction. The Terriers went on the power play early in the third, and a wide shot by Ahti Oksanen put the puck on Evan Rodrigues’ stick to Demko’s right. Demko slid his big 6-foot-3 frame into position and made the save on Rodrigues’ first effort, then took away space on the follow-up. Rodrigues could only put his rebound effort off the post, and BC came away unscathed.
“Thatcher kept them off the boards,” York said. “I think a lot of our good defense was the play of Thatcher.”
While York praised Demko’s increasing confidence in playing the puck, it was a misplay by the rookie that led to his only blemish of the night. With a little more than 13 minutes to go, Demko tried to flip a slow-moving loose puck into the corner to his left. The speedy and talented Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.) pounced on Demko’s weak attempt and knocked it down, setting up a pass to Robbie Baillargeon (Enfield, Conn.) in the high slot, and the BU rookie ripped a shot through traffic to beat Demko and cut the BC lead to 2-1.
After the game, Demko owned up to his mistake.
“I went out to play the puck, and tried to make a little bit of a saucer pass to my defenseman,” Demko said. “(O’Regan) made a good play, knocked it out of the air, I was just trying to get back to my net. He hit the trailer, and the guy made a good shot, I think through Patrick Brown’s legs, and I just lost it in the traffic a little bit.”
No matter; that was the last goal Demko gave up, and he came up big in the waning moments. With less than a minute left, Rodrigues took a pass from Dalton MacAfee at the BC blue line, and fired an expert pass into the slot, where Kevin Duane (New Canaan, Conn.) was cutting to the net. Duane got his stick on the puck and tipped it high toward an open corner of the net, but Demko lifted his left shoulder just high enough to catch a piece of the shot and deflect it away.
“I’d have to see the replay, but I don’t know how it stayed out of the net,” York said after the game.
The Terriers saw enough in real time. Other than Baillargeon’s goal, BU struggled to find any space around Demko’s large presence in front of the Eagle net.
“He’s big, he’s square, he makes a great save at the end just because he’s in position,” said BU coach David Quinn (Cranston, R.I.). “He understands what his strength is – it’s his size. He doesn’t waste any movement, he doesn’t waste any energy.”
Demko has seen some big stages up close, from the World Junior Championships in Sweden this year, to the Eagles’ win over Notre Dame in the marquee game of Frozen Fenway 2014. But in each situation he played a backup role. Monday night at TD Garden was the first big game of his college career in which Demko was the man between the posts.
“Obviously it’s a huge situation, it’s my first Beanpot, there’s so much hype around the event,” said the San Diego native. “Coming in, it didn’t take me too much to get into it. To get out there in front of the fans with your team, it felt really good to get the big W.”
Demko will likely get the call again next Monday. Either way, thanks to his sterling play in the semifinals, he has a chance to win the Beanpot title as a freshman.
That’s one place where even Cory Schneider, whose 2004-05 BC team lost in the opening round of the tournament, can’t compare.