VANCOUVER -- Like everything else Cory Schneider is doing right now, there wasn't a hint of hesitation when the Vancouver Canucks' goalie was asked to describe the zone he's in.
Maybe the sizzling stopper just didn't want to think about it for long -- because to hear him tell it, turning off his brain is a big part of an incredible run that reached five straight wins after he made 47 saves during a 4-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.
"You almost don't even think about it. It just kind of happens and you are seeing the puck well and you are moving and you are almost anticipating," Schneider said of a streak that has seen him post two shutouts and stop 164 of 168 shots. "There are times as a goalie where nothing makes sense and you are kind of questioning yourself, and there are times when everything makes sense and you just seem to know the answer ahead of time."
With a .976 save percentage his last five games, including four straight with a healthy Roberto Luongo watching from the bench as the backup, it's clear Schneider is on one of the those rolls right now. While coach Alain Vigneault wasn't quite ready to commit to a seventh straight start Thursday against Nashville, he had nothing but praise for his nominal No. 2 man after watching his team win despite being outshot 48-34 by Columbus.
"They say never critique a win," Vigneault said. "That being said, obviously giving up 22 shots in the third period was not exactly part of the overall plan. … But Cory stood his ground and was again the best player on the ice tonight. ... Goaltending on a lot of nights makes the difference and covers up for a lot of mistakes, and right now obviously our goaltender Cory is one of the better players in the League at this time."
There weren't any arguments from the Blue Jackets, who after a miserable start failed to record at least a point for just the second time in the last seven games (3-2-2).
"It was almost like he was made of Velcro," said goalie Curtis Sanford, who made 31 saves in his seventh straight start. "He was just sucking everything in, wasn't giving us much second opportunities -- and when we did get them he was square."
Sanford played two seasons behind Luongo in Vancouver, with Schneider in the American Hockey League at the end of his time here -- so seeing the former first-round pick playing so well isn't a surprise. But Sanford also admitted he never thought he'd see Luongo glued to the bench for four straight games as a healthy backup.
"It's a little wild looking over at the bench and seeing Roberto," Sanford said. "But right now (Schneider is) the hottest goalie in the NHL so it's no surprise they keep going back with him. He's a No.1 goalie in this League. He's got the ball and he's running with it."
So are the Canucks, who struggled through the first six weeks of the season after losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final but have won a season-high five straight with Schneider in goal and Ryan Kesler rediscovering his Selke Trophy-winning form. Slowed by offseason hip surgery that kept him out through mid-October, Kesler extended his points streak to five games when he restored the Canucks' two-goal cushion just 1:28 after Samuel Pahlsson ended Schneider's shutout bid with a shorthanded goal early in the third period.
Linemate David Booth also scored, and they held Columbus's top forward line off the scoreboard.
"They are three really good players," Kesler said of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal. "It's tough, but I thought we threw a blanket over them."
When they escaped that, Schneider had the answer.
The 25-year-old threw out the left pad to rob Mark Letestu alone in the slot after a giveaway at 3:37, then swallowed up a couple of James Wisniewski blasts and tidied up with a good glove save on a Carter wrist shot the next shift. He got just enough to stop Carter again on a 3-on-1 later in the period as the puck trickled through his blocker-side arm and stopped dangerously outside the post, just out of the reach of Carter. He also poke-checked Prospal after another turnover left the Jackets' top-line winger unchecked in front, and Booth scored 30 seconds later.
"We had some point-blank opportunities, some grade-A chances," coach Scott Arniel said.
"Obviously he stopped a bunch but there were a few where we hit him dead-center, right in the middle of that Canuck logo. I don't know if we're squeezing the sticks, but if you get a chance against a good goaltender obviously you've got to find those corners."
Daniel Sedin opened the scoring – and ended an eight-game goal drought – 2:19 in, and Booth doubled the lead with 2:18 left in first period. Both goals came on bounces off Columbus players that ended up on Vancouver sticks in good position.
Pahlsson ended the shutout bid with his first goal of the season – and first in 28 games -- after Fedor Tyutin got his own shorthanded rebound and threw it out front for a quick, unchecked shot between Schneider's legs. But Kesler restored the two-goal margin 88 seconds later with his third goal and sixth point during a five-game streak that coincides with the Canucks' winning ways.
But it wasn't all good news for Vancouver, as veteran defenseman Sami Salo left in the third period after tweaking his groin in the second. He didn't return, and his status will be updated after practice Thursday, as will Schneider's as the starter.
"He is making Alain have a tough decision every night," said Arniel, who coached Schneider in the AHL. "He's a guy I've seen before when he gets on a roll and is confident everything looks real easy, and that's what he's doing right now."
He's making it sound easy too.
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