Asked early during his tenure in Vancouver why he wears No. 1 on his jersey, Roberto Luongo
looked seriously at his inquisitor and said: "Because No. 1 says it all."
Luongo held a perfect deadpan delivery before breaking into a laugh. But with that status in the Canucks' crease now being questioned, things were more serious on Monday.
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After setting franchise shutout records two of the last three Novembers, Luongo watched Cory Schneider
go on one of his own last week, reduced to the role of spectator behind the second-year stopper, sparking talk of a crease controversy in a city that used to chew up and spit out goalies on an annual basis before he arrived six seasons ago.
Luongo said all the right things -- and with the right tone -- shortly after Schneider revealed he would make a sixth-straight start against the Columbus Blue Jackets
on Tuesday night. So did head coach Alain Vigneault
, reiterating Luongo was "still our No. 1 goaltender." But no one was pretending the incumbent was happy about his spot on the bench.
"That goes without saying for anybody in this room," Luongo said. "We all want to play, but at the same time, I'm not going to put my agenda in front of the team's. The bottom line is about the Vancouver Canucks
winning games and that's what I'm all about."
Luongo, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season after backstopping the Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, missed Schneider's first two starts of this streak with an upper-body injury. But he has been ready to return for the last three games, making this his longest stretch as a healthy backup in Vancouver.
Luongo said he's OK with it for two reasons: First, Schneider is sizzling, with two shutouts and a .975 save percentage during a four-game win streak that was badly needed by the struggling Canucks. Second, Luongo and Schneider have formed a strong relationship during two seasons together.
"Cory has unbelievable talent and he's been working his bag off the last two years and never complained and was always 100 percent behind me, so the same thing goes for me," Luongo said. "He deserves what he's getting. He's got unbelievable talent and there's no doubt in anybody's mind that he could be a starter in this League."
That the Canucks have two such goalies is a luxury to some, and a controversy-to-come for others, especially with Luongo in the second year of a 12-year, $64-million contract. Vigneault isn't looking that far ahead, not with his team taking a quarter of the season to get over a Cup Final hangover and put together more than two wins at a time.
"My concern right now is winning tomorrow's game," Vigneault said tersely. "I'm looking at the standings and I think we gotta win some hockey games. … Roberto wants to play. He's a competitor. He's a very proud guy. He knows he's the No. 1 goaltender on this team and he wants to play, but at the end of day Cory is playing real well."
There was a day, not that long ago, when that wouldn't have mattered.
Canucks' backup Cory Schneider
has won four straight, including two shutouts and a .975 save percentage, keeping incumbent starter Roberto Luongo
on the bench. (Photo: Getty Images)
Luongo is notorious for getting off to slow starts, but has always been given lots of chances to play his way out of them. It appeared he was doing so again, with another miserable first month followed by a 4-2-0 run and .923 save percentage in November before getting hurt during a Nov. 13 victory over the New York Islanders
. He hasn't played since, but can at least draw on last year's playoffs, when Vigneault shockingly left him on the bench for Game 6 against Chicago in the first round, then went back to Luongo for Game 7.
"I've been in this League a long time, and I've been through a lot of things," said Luongo, who is 7-5-1 with a mediocre .896 save percentage this season. "There's no reason to speculate beyond tomorrow. I'm not going to start thinking about long term. Just make sure I am ready when it's my turn. … I feel like I'm where I need to be at practice. There's no reason for me to be down, I was playing well right before the injury."
Schneider took over shortly after, but not right away.
The 25-year-old was admittedly bad in a 5-1 loss to rival Chicago, and his save percentage was down to .904 at that point. But Schneider was the best player in a 2-1 overtime win over Ottawa, tripled his career shutout total with back-to-back blankings in Colorado and Phoenix, and was named First Star after 43 saves in a 3-2 win in San Jose.
"Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and gotta go with it," Schneider said modestly, crediting noticeably improved defensive play several times during his media session Monday. "Part of my goal last year was to gain (Vigneault's) trust and my teammates trust, and hopefully I have that now."
As for Luongo, Schneider has his respect, and insists it goes both ways.
After all, it was Luongo who went to the coaches last April and asked that Schneider get into the last two games of the season, giving him 25 appearances and making him eligible to have his name on the Jennings Trophy they shared for giving up the fewest goals in the NHL.
"He's a competitor and wants to play and it's something we're dealing with fine," Schneider said. "It's not awkward between us at all. We're just pulling for one another and whatever is best for the team. We don't change what we are doing because of it. There's really no situation to even discuss. We're just doing what we do and joking around."
Just not about the No. 1, or who might be it in Vancouver right now.