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Schneider has plenty at stake rest of season with Devils

Goalie wants to prove he's healthy, back in form after injuries, long losing streak

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Cory Schneider finally feels like himself again, and the New Jersey Devils goaltender wants to keep it that way.

The Devils (25-34-9) don't have much to play for other than pride in their final 14 regular-season games, including against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, MSG+2, NHL.TV). With 59 points, they're 20 points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

But Schneider, who will start against the Rangers, knows there's a lot at stake for him. After struggling for much of the past two seasons, the 32-year-old is trying to reestablish himself as a No. 1 goaltender.

Video: PHI@NJD: Schneider denies Laughton with right pad

"These games are all really meaningful for me," Schneider said. "I haven't played a lot of hockey in the last year, year and a half, at least by my standards. So, it's just fun to play and get out there and get games in. I think we're all out to prove something right now, to ourselves, to coaches, to the management."

Riddled by injuries, including to forwards Taylor Hall (lower body), the Hart Trophy winner as the NHL's most valuable player last season, Nico Hischier (upper body), Miles Wood (lower body), Pavel Zacha (upper body) and Jesper Bratt (lower body), the Devils have lost five straight (0-4-1).

They moved defenseman Ben Lovejoy (Dallas Stars) and forwards Marcus Johansson (Boston Bruins) and Brian Boyle (Nashville Predators) before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 and are looking to the future, but Schneider views the final four weeks of the season as an opportunity.

Although Schneider has three seasons remaining on a seven-year contract he signed on July 9, 2014, his future with New Jersey was unclear before he returned from a conditioning assignment with Binghamton of the American Hockey League on Feb. 3 after recovering from an abdominal strain. Schneider missed the first eight games of this season following surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left hip on May 1, 2018 and struggled to find his game when he returned.

By the time he was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 17, he had a personal regular-season losing streak of 18 games (0-15-3) that dated to a 3-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 27, 2017. 

"I think it mentally wore on him a bit," Devils coach John Hynes said. "I think his confidence wavered at times for him. Even when he came back this year, you could see it a little bit."

Schneider admitted it was difficult but said he never worried that his career was in jeopardy.

"You don't want to go down that path," he said. "I talked to a lot of people and you usually just don't lose ability or talent overnight. So, for me, it was probably a combination of everything, just the physical, which can bleed into mental, which can then just sort of take over."

The time Schneider missed with his abdominal injury gave him a chance to reset mentally, work on his game with goalie coach Roland Melanson and put the hip surgery completely behind him.

"I've talked to a lot of guys who had the surgery and some of them say that you really don't feel normal again until 9-12 months after the surgery," Schneider said. "So, any time something like this happens, time is a weapon. It stunk to miss that much of the season and to be out during that stretch, but we did some more work with it. Just having those six weeks added on to the recovery time has helped everything."

Although Schneider lost his first three starts (0-2-1) after returning to extend his losing streak to 21 (0-17-4), he felt he was headed in the right direction. His breakthrough came in a relief appearance at the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 15. 

Schneider entered the game 7:19 into the second period with the Devils trailing 4-1 and stopped all 15 shots he faced to help them rally for a 5-4 overtime victory. It was his first NHL win in 414 days.

Video: NJD@MIN: Schneider shuts down Spurgeon in overtime

Two days later, he made 34 saves in a 4-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres and his confidence grew. Including those two wins, Schneider is 4-2-1 in his past seven appearances with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage and one shutout.

Before that, he was 0-7-2 with a 4.22 GAA and .867 save percentage this season.

"It's great for him because of all the hard work and dedication he's put in when things weren't going right," Devils center Travis Zajac said. "He never pointed a finger or blamed anyone else. He continued to work and continued to compete and if anyone deserves to be back at the top of their game, it's him."

It wasn't that long ago that Schneider was considered one of the League's top goaltenders. His .923 save percentage (.9227) from 2010-11 to 2016-17 was third in the NHL among goalies in who played at least 100 games over that span behind Tim Thomas (.9234) and Carey Price (.9230).

Before his losing streak began, he was 17-6-0 last season with a 2.49 GAA, .923 save percentage and one shutout. Schneider believes he can be that goalie again and be part of the solution for the Devils next season and beyond. 

If he can do that, Hynes thinks Schneider would be a perfect mentor for 22-year-old rookie goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.

"I just feel a lot more like myself, which is great," Schneider said. "It's only been 10 or so games, but it's as good a stretch as I've put together in a while. So, these are all meaningful games for me here down the stretch just to get back to the level I want to be at to show my teammates and the organization that I can play at a high level."

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