Goaltending switch no easy matter
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault's comment leading up to Game 4 that he would go with the goaltender that gave his Canucks the best chance to win raised a lot of eyebrows, especially when he named Cory Schneider as his starter. But don't think it was easy leaving Roberto Luongo, the franchise leader in wins and shutouts, on the bench 10 months after leading them to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
"You have no idea how incredibly difficult that is because of the amount of respect we have for Roberto -- not only as a goalie, but as a professional and as a man," associate coach Rick Bowness said after an optional practice Thursday. "I skated up to him a couple weeks ago and I said, 'Man, I know I've got thick skin, but I can't believe what you go through around here.' I have a tremendous amount of respect for Roberto as a man and an athlete, and that was probably the most difficult decision coach Alain has had to make in our tenure here."
It hasn't been much easier for Schneider, who has vehemently defended Luongo against widespread criticism he feels is unfair and based on stereotypes that aren't accurate. Instead Schneider praised Luongo as a mentor. Luongo has handled his reduced role well this season, and the media attention that comes with it.
"I've learned an awful lot," Schneider said before the series started. "He's a consummate pro, he goes about his business, he takes what he does very seriously and he works very hard at it. It's fun to watch as a younger guy coming into the League, to see what it's all about and to see how you do that playing 60 games a year in hostile environments with a lot of scrutiny. I've taken some cues from him, watching him and interacting with him and seeing how he handles everything."
That includes sharing time, something they did more this season, with Schneider playing seven straight in November, and splitting starts down the stretch. It could not have worked, said Schneider, if either playing partner pouted, especially in a market where every comment is dissected like a frog in high school science class.
"It would be real tough," Schneider said. "I know it can be a different dynamic, but as long as you are both interested in the goals of the team it can work."
-- Kevin Woodley
Cory Schneider extended the Canucks' season with a stellar 43-save performance Wednesday.
The question is whether he also ended Roberto Luongo's time in Vancouver with that clutch performance against Los Angeles in Game 4 of the teams' Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
It's a question that probably won't be answered for months -- one with even more moving parts than Schneider showed in Game 4 in making a series of game- and season-saving stops in a 3-1 victory that prevented the top-seeded Canucks from being swept.
The complexity of the question won't keep it from being asked, though. Not with Luongo, a goaltender whose pride runs as deep as his resume and contract, reduced potentially to the role of postseason spectator.
At the end of the day, the answer has to come from Luongo himself because of a no-trade clause included in the 12-year, $64-million contract that still has a decade to run. Luongo controls his future and has made it clear he likes Vancouver as a city and as an organization that gives him a chance to add one of the few things still missing from his NHL career -- a Stanley Cup.
Whether he is willing to stay and share the starting job with -- or lose it to -- Schneider is another question only Luongo can answer. Whether he has to answer that no longer appears to be in question.
If there were any lingering doubts about Schneider's development into a bona fide No. 1 goalie with star potential after a regular season in which he finished second in the NHL in save percentage (.937) and third in goals-against average (1.96), they were erased after he replaced Luongo as the Game 3 starter. Since then he's stopped 62 of 64 shots, including a crucial Dustin Brown penalty shot just before the Canucks made it 3-1 on the same power play.
None of which should be an outright indictment of Luongo as a goalie.
After another shaky start to the season while again making changes to his game under second-year goalie coach Roland Melanson, Luongo was among the League's better goalies in the regular season. He posted a .925 save percentage from November on that would rank No. 7 in the NHL -- just ahead of Nashville's Pekka Rinne -- during a full season.
And any analysis that points only to Luongo's .891 save percentage while losing the first two games against the Kings fails to recognize the degree of difficulty among the 35 stops he made in Game 1, when he easily was the Canucks' best player, and a .951 save percentage while playing at even strength. Luongo's even-strength save percentage trails only three other goalies with a playoff start -- Rinne (.962), Schneider (.957) and Jonathan Quick (.955).
So the question going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- at least in Vancouver -- wasn't so much if Luongo was good. The question was whether Schneider might be even better.
The answer goes beyond the statistics, and even beyond Schneider proving himself -- first with key regular-season wins in tough situations against rivals like Boston, Chicago and San Jose, and now in the playoffs -- and includes everything from physiology to psychology.
Physically, Schneider is an inch shorter than the 6-foot-3 Luongo, but has other benefits on the ice.
For starters, his skates are an easier-to-steer "size 9 or 9.5," contributing to Schneider being a better skater than Luongo, who navigates the ice with size-15 skates. That difference manifested itself in Dustin Brown's penalty shot in Game 4, as Schneider came way out and matched Brown's speed back before making the save, something Luongo couldn't do as well when Brown scored on a shorthanded breakaway in Game 2.
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Luongo also is bowlegged and lacks the natural hip flexibility to use the wider butterfly that Schneider employs. In other words, Schneider can spread his legs so his pads go almost straight across in front of him, whereas Luongo has a narrower butterfly, with skates and pads in behind him as he drops. This makes it easier -- and faster -- for Schneider to push laterally across the ice from his knees. Luongo, meanwhile, is sometimes forced to fall forward so he can spread his pads across the ice as far as Schneider.
Longer legs and less flexibility also can create more holes down low, something Mike Richards exploited on a five-on-three power play in Game 1, only to be turned away by Schneider on a similar attempt during a five-on-four in Game 4. The Kings also stuffed the winning goal through Luongo on a Game 2 power play, something they found harder to do against Schneider, who can both seal up easier and spread out wider in scrambles.
As for psychology, it is a bit more complicated.
Critics are quick to point to Luongo's struggles in Boston during the Stanley Cup Final last spring, often while failing to mention the two 1-0 shutouts he posted at home. But the decision facing the Canucks may be less about Luongo's perceived mental frailty -- he did, after all, come back from being benched to start Game 6 against Chicago in the first round of the playoffs last year to backstop a crucial Game 7 overtime win -- and more about his willingness to potentially play second fiddle after more than 11 seasons as a clear-cut No. 1.
Luongo has handled a decreasing role admirably this season, saying several times that Schneider is going to be a star in the NHL, and the Canucks made it clear heading into these playoffs that trading that future star was not in the immediate plans, even with the current star locked in long-term. The 26-year-old Schneider is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but Vancouver retains his rights -- and the ability to match any offer sheets from other teams. As for trading Luongo -- it's not entirely up to them.
That's a question only Luongo can answer -- one of many he now faces.