Is the dust finally beginning to settle for New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider?
After replacing arguably the best goaltender in NHL history, Martin Brodeur, and establishing a Devils record by starting a career-high 20 straight games to begin the season, it appears Schneider has discovered a nice rhythm playing for co-coaches Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens and Adam Oates.
"Early on it was tough with the number of games I played, the travel, the road games; for me that was a learning experience to try and figure out how to do that on the fly and settle into a rhythm," Schneider said.
He went 9-8-2 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .914 save percentage during his 20-start run to begin the season; he was pulled four times during that stretch. Since Lamoriello replaced Peter DeBoer as coach Dec. 27, Schneider is 7-3-1 with a 1.90 GAA and .937 save percentage.
"I was sharp one night and inconsistent the next, but I think I've gotten over that," Schneider said. "Once you get into a rhythm you can really focus on that job and take more of a leadership role."
Schneider has allowed three or more goals twice during his past 13 games; he's allowed one goal or fewer six times in that stretch. He said he relishes the idea of winning tight, low-scoring games.
"This is the type of hockey you will play late in the year or [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, potentially, when both teams are fighting for spots," Schneider said. "We won't have a lot of success winning 6-5 or 5-4 when things start to open up. We're a team built to win 1-0 or 2-1, and as a goalie I want that opportunity and challenge."
At the start of the season, the Devils coaching staff believed Schneider was capable of playing at least 60 games, but the last time he played that many in a season was 2009-10 when he played 60 with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Entering play Wednesday, Schneider has started an NHL-high 44 games and ranks among the top five in shots faced and time on ice.
"We knew a lot about Cory before we made that trade for him," Lamoriello said. "We certainly followed his progression from Boston College, through the American Hockey League and then with the Vancouver Canucks. We had an opportunity to get a goaltender with [Brodeur's] status as far as he was at that time and we were fortunate."
In Schneider's first five seasons with the Canucks, he was behind Roberto Luongo. Last season, his first with the Devils, he was 16-15-12 with a 1.97 GAA in a career-high 45 games splitting time with Brodeur.
This season, Schneider is the clear No. 1 for the first time. Though even he would admit a need to improve in some areas, Lamoriello has had complete faith in Schneider. He showed that when he traded the ninth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft to acquire Schneider, and again during the summer when he signed Schneider to a reported seven-year, $42 million contract.
"I expected a heavier workload this year but didn't have a singular number in mind," Schneider said. "The top goalies in the League usually play between 55 and 60 games. It's a little more infrequent now than it used to be, but I think that's the range. I felt good last year, felt I could have played another 15 to 20 games. But you never know until you do it.
"There are guys out there who can play 75 games; [Brodeur] did it [five times with the Devils]. It's still incredible to me he was able to do that."
One of the reasons it is uncommon to see a goalie play 70-plus games is the number of quality goaltenders in the League. NHL general managers feel the need to have a backup capable of playing 15-20 games is necessary in order to have the starter playoff-ready.
Goalie - NJD
GAA: 2.33 | SVP: .922
"Travel is tough today," Schneider said. "The game is faster and every point is so important that you just expend so much energy every night. It seems to me like there are a lot of good goalies in the League now too. All of them are stepping up and having big games, whereas before you had one you could only count on."
Rookie backup Keith Kinkaid has done his part in relief of Schneider.
"I didn't know a lot about Keith, but he has impressed me on and off the ice with how he's handled the situation," Schneider said. "When I came into the League with Roberto, he was a tremendous help to me. He was open, had confidence and supported me but was secure in his role as the No. 1 guy and we had a great working relationship."
Schneider credits Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson for spending so much time with him when he was Luongo's backup. Schneider said it was difficult not playing every day as he did in college and in the AHL, but being ready was critical.
"He worked me hard every single day I didn't play; we were always out there doing something," Schneider said of Melanson. "I know how Keith feels as a rookie where every game feels like a do-or-die situation. But that also helps heighten your sense of importance and allows you to you elevate your play, and Keith has done a terrific job."
One of Schneider's more memorable moments this season came in defeat; he made 41 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 30.
"It's probably one of the better goaltending performances that I've seen in a long time," Lamoriello said after the game. "It's a shame he didn't get the win but he deserved a better fate."