Fighting for their playoff lives, the Colorado Avalanche will face a backup goalie when they play a must-win game Wednesday night in Vancouver.
The only problem is Vancouver's No. 2, Cory Schneider, is anything but.
Schneider is second among all NHL goaltenders in save percentage at .934, and fifth with a 2.04 goals-against average. But it is still somewhat surprising that he’s starting Wednesday, just two nights after Roberto Luongo pitched a 38-save, 1-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Kings. It is a sign the Canucks want to have both parts of one of the League’s top tandems on a roll and ready when the playoffs start in two weeks.
“It is very important,” coach Alain Vigneault said of keeping both playing well. “I think we've done a good job of keeping both guys on top of their game throughout the year. It's something we worked into our planning.”
The start against Colorado will be Schneider’s fourth in the last six games, and with back-to-back contests against Dallas Friday and Calgary Saturday, he figures to play at least one of the final five games as well. The sophomore stopper is 10-1-1 in 12 starts since Christmas, while Luongo struggled through early March, giving up 25 goals over eight games before taking a week off to “reset.” Luongo is 2-0-1 with a .965 save percentage since coming back.
“We've got two great goaltenders and we’re using them both,” VIgneault said.
That’s tough news for a Colorado team that needs to win to keep its playoff hopes alive, but has yet to beat the Canucks this season. Vancouver is 5-0 against their Northwest Division rivals, including one shutout each for Luongo and Schneider early in the season, and a 3-2 overtime victory in Colorado four days ago.
The Avalanche, who are only one point behind Phoenix and Dallas for the final playoff spot but only have three games left after Wednesday (both the Coyotes and Stars will have five left), could get one break if top-four defenseman Kevin Bieksa can't play for the Canucks. Already missing Aaron Rome to a knee injury, Bieksa took a maintenance day Tuesday and might have it extended.
“Just playing tough hockey, a couple little maintenance issues we're dealing with right now,” said Vigneault, adding he wasn’t worried about Bieksa for playoffs.
As for the Avalanche, which may need to sweep its final four games after going 0-2-1 in the last three, there will be a couple changes up front.
Captain Milan Hejduk, who hasn’t scored in 21 games, is slated to drop down to the fourth line, while fellow forward Peter Mueller, a surprise healthy scratch the last two games, gets back in at the expense of Chuck Kobasew. On the back end, coach Joe Sacco indicated rookie defenseman Tyson Barrie, who is from B.C., is a game-time decision and may be scratched for a second-straight game after getting knocked off the puck on the play that led to Vancouver’s game-winning goal last week.
Here are the rest of the expected lineups as the Canucks prepare for a 400th straight sellout dating back to November 2002 – the longest active streak in the NHL and third longest in North American pro sports – by launching a “This is Our Home” campaign promoting responsible playoff celebrations from their fans:
Mason Raymond – Henrik Sedin – Zack Kassian
Alexandre Burrows – Ryan Kesler – David Booth
Chris Higgins – Samuel Pahlsson – Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra – Maxim Lapierre – Dale Weise
Dan Hamhuis – Chris Tanev
Alexander Edler – Kevin Bieksa
Marc-Andre Gragnani – Sami Salo
If Bieksa can’t play Andrew Alberts will draw in, likely on the left side of a pairing with Gragnani, while Salo moves up to take Bieksa’s spot alongside Edler.
Cory Schneider starts in goal ahead of Roberto Luongo
Steve Downie - Ryan O'Reilly - Gabriel Landeskog
Jamie McGinn - Paul Stastny - David Jones
Mark Olver - Matt Duchene – Peter Mueller
Cody McLeod - Jay McClement - Milan Hejduk
Matt Hunwick - Ryan Wilson
Jan Hejda - Ryan O'Byrne
Shane O'Brien - Erik Johnson
Semyon Varlamov makes a sixth-straight start ahead of veteran Jean-Sebastian Giguere despite a suspect outing in a 5-1 loss in San Jose.