Thursday, April 19, 2012
Changing of the guard in Vancouver
By Jim Morris Special to ESPN.com
By keeping his team alive to fight another game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, backup Cory Schneider has fanned the simmering debate over who should be the Vancouver Canucks' starting goaltender.
For now the job is Schneider's to lose, but it's an issue Canucks management probably will settle this summer when either Schneider or Roberto Luongo is moved.
Going into Game 4 on Wednesday night, Vancouver was hoping Daniel Sedin's return to the lineup after he missed almost a month with a concussion would spark the Canucks as they tried to avoid elimination. But it was Schneider who was on fire, stopping 43 shots in a 3-1 Canucks win over the Los Angeles Kings, which forced Game 5 on Sunday in Vancouver.
"Schneider came up really big for us tonight," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "He gave us a chance in the first period when some of our guys were a little bit tight."
Sedin did his part, too, earning an assist and giving some jump to Vancouver's top line. The Canucks' power play, 0-for-14 in the first three games, finally stirred as Vancouver went 2-for-3 on man advantages. But none of it would have mattered if Schneider hadn't kept Vancouver in the game early, then shut the door on the Kings in the third period.
Schneider stayed calm in a first period in which his teammates looked nervous. When the Kings attacked in waves, outshooting Vancouver 13-7, Schneider was a rock. He stopped a blistering one-timer by Willie Mitchell from the point, then scrambled to block a Dwight King rebound at the side of the net.
"You have to come up with some big saves early on, and give your guys a chance to get into the game, get into the rhythm and get comfortable on the road," said Schneider, who stopped 19 of 20 shots in a 1-0 loss Sunday.
In the second period, the Kings gained momentum after the Canucks took back-to-back penalties. Schneider refused to let Los Angeles climb back in the game. He stymied Mike Richards on a power play on which the Kings peppered the Canucks' net from all angles.
The game turned in the third period. Schneider stopped Dustin Brown on a penalty shot. Just a few seconds later, Henrik Sedin made it 3-1 on a power play.
Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, on a power play, scored the other Vancouver goals.
Anze Kopitar scored for Los Angeles.
"We knew ... they were going to do everything they could to put us away and not let us hang around," Schneider said. "I was doing as much as I could to keep us in the game."
Watching from the bench was Luongo, the goaltender Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis signed to a $64 million contract that runs through the 2021-22 season, and he must be wondering whether he's witnessing a changing of the guard in the Canucks' crease.
There has always been a love-hate relationship between Luongo and the Vancouver fans. Luongo is probably the best goaltender who has ever played for the Canucks. Still, Vancouver's loss to the Bruins in last year's Stanley Cup finals can be partially blamed on Luongo, who looked awful in three games in Boston in which Vancouver was outscored 17-3.
Luongo can't be blamed for the back-to-back 4-2 defeats in Vancouver that put the Canucks down 2-0 to the Kings. Vigneault said he started Schneider in Game 3 only because it was one of his last cards to play. It will be hard to stuff that card back in the deck now.
Vigneault already has said Schneider will start Sunday.
When Schneider plays, he has a settling influence on the Canucks. The team works hard in front of him. He also doesn't give up soft goals like Luongo has been guilty of doing in the past.
Schneider proved this season he's capable of being a starting goaltender. He had a 20-8-1 record, three shutouts, a 1.96 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. Luongo had a 31-14-8 record, five shutouts, a 2.41 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.
Schneider becomes a restricted free agent this year. The 26-year-old is coming off a season in which he earned $900,000.
Before Gillis could trade Luongo, he must have the 33-year-old goalie waive his no-trade clause. He also must find a team willing to take on his contract, although a $5.33 million-a-season cap hit is manageable for many organizations.
Both Tampa Bay and Florida have been mentioned as possible destinations for Luongo.
Moments after the Canucks' victory Wednesday, callers to sports radio programs in Vancouver already were debating which team Luongo should be dealt to. That all could change if Schneider is shelled in his next start.
For his part, Schneider was able to keep his first playoff victory and the Canucks' playoff picture in perspective: "It doesn't mean much if you lose the next one."