VANCOUVER -- There may be lingering questions about Cory Schneider’s health heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after he missed the final two games to rest a "body" injury that the Vancouver Canucks insist is minor.
There is no question, however, that a healthy Schneider is the Canucks' No. 1 option when the playoffs do start.
Just ask the guy he replaced.
Longtime starter Roberto Luongo wasted no time rattling off a list of superlatives when asked why Schneider has been so good, including a surprisingly direct comparison and several elements Luongo has tried to implement himself.
"He's obviously much quicker than I am," Luongo told NHL.com. "He's technical and he's quick, he's always in perfect position to make the save. When you are playing that way, and also as athletic as he is -- so if he does have to make a scramble save he has the ability to do that as well -- it's tough to beat him.
"I can't think of one thing to say where I find he has even a little deficiency."
The praise should come as no surprise. Good friends before and throughout the soap opera surrounding the Canucks' crease this season, Schneider and Luongo always have formed a mutual admiration society. The younger Schneider always has been quick to defend his mentor against past outside criticism, and now, as Luongo prepares to start these playoffs on the bench, he is returning the compliments.
The way Schneider has played since claiming the No. 1 job three games into the last year's playoffs, it's hard to argue with him.
Despite some early stumbles in his first season as the starter, and in spite of the long shadow Luongo cast from the locker next to his, Schneider has proven himself a worthy No. 1. He finished his first regular season in the role with a 17-9-4 record, and among the NHL leaders with a 2.11 goals-against average (eighth), .927 save percentage (fourth), and shutouts (tied for first with five).
Though the GAA and save percentage represent a slip from last season, when he had a 1.96 GAA and .937 save percentage in 33 games, Schneider has been trending upward since a mid-March break allowed him to fine-tune his game with Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson. He's posted a .942 save percentage since, and more often than not was Vancouver's best player, backstopping an injury-ravaged team to a fifth straight Northwest Division title.
"He's been our best player every game he's played," defenseman Jason Garrison said.
As for the playoffs, this won't be Schneider's first taste of extra pressure. That came during the Canucks' 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final, and it wasn't pretty.
Given the Game 6 start in the first round against the arch rival Chicago Blackhawks after the Canucks and Luongo had squandered most of a 3-0 series lead, Schneider played well enough, but coughed up two goals on puck-handling mistakes and was forced to leave in the third period when he cramped up while giving up the tying goal on a penalty shot. Schneider admitted later it was anxiety that caused him to tighten up, but there's been little of that on display since.
"It's physically more strenuous," Schneider told NHL.com of playing goalie in the playoffs. "It's multiple overtimes potentially and hotter buildings and worse ice, things like that, so keeping yourself in good condition, getting your rest, hydrating and all that stuff is critical to making sure you are at your physical peak to perform in playoffs."
Schneider made two more relief appearances in the Final against his hometown Boston Bruins. After being groomed with tougher starts in 2011-12, including a spirited rematch victory in Boston, he showed no signs of stress when the Canucks turned to him after losing the first two playoff games at home against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings last spring.
Schneider won once in three starts as the Canucks were eliminated in five games when Jarret Stoll beat Schneider on a 2-on-1 in overtime, but that was just the fourth goal he gave up in those games, finishing the series with a .960 save percentage and little doubt he was Vancouver's No. 1 goalie moving forward.
"Having been there and learning how to deal with it, and the pressure and the intensity and the scrutiny of it all is important," Schneider said. "But last year is last year. You look at some guys' track records from one year to the next and it's completely different. So I am not going to sit here and say, 'Well, I played pretty well last year, it is going to happen again this year.' I'm just trying to refocus."
For Schneider, that means finding a middle ground between getting ramped up but not carried away.
"You don't want to change a whole lot," Schneider said. "If you are feeling good and playing well, you do what you can to try to maintain that. Everyone tries to find that extra gear in the playoffs, regardless of how well they are doing."
Schneider was doing well heading into the playoffs, giving up two goals or less in 13 of his final 16 starts. That he accepted the team MVP award in the final home game Thursday wearing a suit shouldn't be too alarming, even if it means he will start the playoffs at least a week after his last game. Schneider worked his way into the No. 1 job by playing well after long gaps between starts, working with Melanson on the movements Luongo raved about, and still works to perfect himself. He's been able to get back on the ice before Game 1 to practice and get some work in, so Schneider should be fine.
If not, the Canucks still have Luongo, who knows a thing or two about the postseason (he is fifth among active goalies in postseason games). And though the veteran may say he's not as quick -- physiologically, with size-13 skates, it's not really possible to be as good a skater, and Luongo's bowlegged walk means a narrower butterfly that requires more time on lateral recoveries from the knees -- he's worked hard to add other elements from Schneider.
That includes less delay and better balance on his post-save recoveries, leading to fewer of the belly-first flops Vancouver fans often deride him for.
"The way he plays is the way I have been trying to play," Luongo said.
The way both play, goaltending should be one thing the Canucks don't have to worry about when the playoffs start.
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