EL SEGUNDO, Calif – When practice ended Tuesday, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider met near centre ice. They kneeled together, and enjoyed each other, talking and laughing.
In the eye of the storm, it was a long, loose, pressure-free moment.
But was it their last?
Head coach Alain Vigneault said he had decided on his starter for Game 4. He wasn’t, however, ready to announce it. The wind was blowing Cory Schneider’s way. He took almost all the action in practice leading up to the win-or-go-home game, and that’s been an indicator during the year he’s being tapped.
A Schneider nod would be tangible evidence suggesting we may have seen the end of the Luongo era in Vancouver. A year ago, this scenario would have seemed unfathomable to some. Luongo was the former captain, with the huge contract, the long resume and status as the cornerstone of the team.
So much so, Schneider admitted this week he was caught off guard last year when he was told he was starting Game 6 in Chicago.
“It sort of surprised me that they would turn to me in that situation,” Schneider said. “I felt good about it, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting it. It taught me to be ready for anything. This year, starting more big games and getting more action than in the past, it helped me understand how valuable I can be to this team and that I shouldn’t view myself as a backup goalie.”
No one should. The Canucks love Schneider. Wouldn’t you?
He’s 26 years old and carries himself like he’s 36. He exhales professionalism. He’s cheap and impressively self aware. He’s one of the most articulate, thoughtful and bright people in hockey, including those who play and those who sit in boardrooms. He has vociferously defended Luongo like he’s family.
In fact, he’s the one who made the best presentation on why starting Luongo in Game 4 would make sense.
“It wasn’t really on Lu, the first two games,” Schneider said. “We didn’t really play well as a team. But we had a strong game on the road last game, so if the team is playing well and you put a hungry Roberto in the net, it could be a great combination.”
When asked what went into his decision, Vigneault said: “Everything.”
If it’s Luongo, it will be because of his experience.
If it’s Schneider, it will be because he has put up numbers that have become impossible to ignore. In two years combined, his save percentage is .933. His goals-against average is 2.09. His winning percentage, spanning 51 decisions is .735.
You can rationalize either choice.
But, whoever starts, the team is moving forward with Schneider in its plans. The Canucks don’t want to trade him. Would you?
A future with Schneider means Luongo isn’t likely to ever regain his seat as the definitive No. 1 goalie in Vancouver. That’s not something he’s going to embrace, no matter how well these two players work together. He’s a workhorse, and fiercely competitive. And he’s 33 years old, not 40.
“We’ve never had any jealousy or animosity toward each other,” Schneider said. “During the past two years, we’ve realized we work well together and the system works. We trust each other.
“He was very supportive of me last game and had no problems. He didn’t display any bad body language or anything like that. Right now, we’re trying to keep it light.
“I know he’s got a lot of pride and he’s extremely competitive. He takes not playing hard. But at the same time, he’s a team guy and he’s been great to me.
“I’ve been very impressed with how he’s carried himself.”
Everyone should be.
Luongo was one of the Canucks best players this season. He had two good games to start the playoffs. And he finds his job is in doubt, through no fault of his own. It’s just that the player behind him may be better. That’s a tremendous mind game to cope with.
“I don’t think there are many guys in the league who would handle it as well as he has,” Schneider said. “That’s something that people forget about him. He doesn’t have any insecurities. He’s not insecure. He’s confident in his game and what he’s accomplished at a lot of levels.
“There’s that one goal he has yet to accomplish, and he has every belief he can one day do that.
“It’d be easy for him to be jealous. It’d be easy for him to be unhappy, but he’s been nothing but a great teammate, and a great friend.”
As they’ve become great friends, Schneider has had a front row seat, watching the critics pick apart Luongo. He should know that if Luongo does ask out, leaving Schneider to sign on for a multi-year deal as the heir apparent, the vultures will be turning on him. It’s inevitable.
“People are going to praise you and they’re going to be against you, it’s a fact of life,” Schneider said. “I haven’t really thought about it, the criticism which may come along with not succeeding in this market.
“But it’s part of being a goalie. It’s something you have to deal with all the time.
“A lot of people thrive on that. They enjoy that intensity and scrutiny. They love proving people wrong, going out there and trying to silence their critics. It doesn’t really bother me at all.
“One thing I learned from Roberto is you can’t take it personally … I’m not going to let criticism define what I’ve been able to do to get to this stage and what I can accomplish once I’m here.”