VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Instead of taking the crease as the Vancouver Canucks' new No. 1 goaltender, Cory Schneider will be back on the bench watching Roberto Luongo start a third straight game when the Chicago Blackhawks visit Friday night.
If it was anyone else, Schneider might be really upset.
But watching Luongo pitch his 61st career shutout against the Colorado Avalanche the night before – second among active goalies only to Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils – makes it easier to accept the decision, even if Schneider would admittedly prefer to be playing himself.
"When a guy is going good, it's hard to turn away from him, especially when it's Roberto Luongo," Schneider said shortly after being told by goaltending coach Roland Melanson at the end of Thursday's practice that he'd be watching again. "It's not just some call-up, it's not a guy who's played 10 games in the League. It's a guy who's played 800 games in the NHL. We've seen what he can do when he gets on a roll, so I understand why it's easy to keep him in the net."
Maybe so, but even Luongo admitted being surprised he was back in goal for the 3-0 win against Colorado on Wednesday despite playing well in a 3-2 shootout loss at the Los Angeles Kings two nights earlier. For a goalie who expected to be traded after losing the No. 1 job to Schneider early in last spring's Stanley Cup Playoffs, nothing that's happening is predictable.
"I don't think any of us could have, right?" Luongo said. "That's the reality of it, but I am in a happy place right now and playing well, the team is playing well and winning and I just want to keep it going."
Schneider, whose hold on the top job seemed to strengthen with a three-year, $12 million contract extension in the summer, stressed that he wants to play -- but also that he wasn't emotional over sitting.
"I don't cry myself to sleep at night, I don't feel bad for myself," he said. "If you're the best goalie, you're going to play. For me, it's being as good as I can be. There's no point in feeling bad about it or being upset about it. I just have to channel all that into motivation."
Luongo had plenty of motivation after losing his job to Schneider, and he channeled it by working four days a week for eight weeks with former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie coach Francois Allaire in Florida. They focused on staying centered on the puck -- both as he prepared for shots and as he recovered toward rebounds -- reducing post-save delays and keeping Luongo better balanced over his knees rather than reaching and getting too spread out. It's helped him avoid the early-season struggles that have plagued him in the past; Luongo has a .938 save percentage that is fourth in the NHL -- three spots behind Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators, who worked with them for a month.
"I don't know about recapture, I think it was always there," Luongo said when asked about finding his old form again. "There are always some ups and downs, that's normal with anyone, I think. I worked hard during the lockout on my game, worked hard on my aspects that I needed to improve on, and I find that coming into training camp I felt like I was ready to play right away and seeing the puck well."
The things Luongo focused on with Allaire were things he noticed and admired in Schneider's game. As for how his playing partner is dealing with the current situation, Luongo admitted others might not be able to handle it, but wasn't worried about Schneider.
"We talk. He's fine. He's so strong mentally. He won't have a problem and he'll be back there sooner rather than later," Luongo said. "He's one of the best in the League in my opinion, and we just want to both do well for the team. The type of guy he is, the personality, the mental strength, that's what makes it so easy for both of us to be here."
Maybe so, but it's hardly an ideal situation for Schneider to begin his first stint as a would-be No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. An already-bright spotlight glared after he was pulled in the season opener and watched Luongo start the next night, something coach Alain Vigneault characterized as simply "sticking with the plan" for back-to-back games.
It's hard to imagine that plan originally included Luongo starting three straight this soon, especially with Schneider posting a .935 save percentage in three starts since his opening-night stumble. Vigneault jokingly flipped an imaginary coin when asked how he comes up with his goaltending decisions, but his refusal to elaborate or declare either of his goalies a No. 1 only increases the questions they face about their roles in the locker room on a daily basis.
"We're past the point of disappointment and anger and frustration," Schneider said. "It is what it is. You just have to be a professional about it and handle it the right way and improve your game and try to get back into the net. I don't feel bad for myself. I don't think anyone else does. If I want to play, then I'll be better -- simple as that."
But when it comes to the goaltending situation in Vancouver these days, nothing is that simple.
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