VANCOUVER – “How many times have I lost my first game in a shootout?” Roberto Luongo asked.
Sunday made three straight.
It was a game Luongo figured last summer he would never play, but one that Vancouver Canuck coach Alain Vigneault planned for him as soon as the revised National Hockey League schedule came out and Luongo was simultaneously still on the roster and the trade market.
Saturday’s you-can’t-make-this-up melodrama involving new starter Cory Schneider, who gave up five goals on 14 shots and was hooked from the first game of the rest of his life, didn’t alter the plan.
And neither should Sunday change Canuck plans, even if Luongo was excellent and made a pile of strong saves in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers that left the Canucks with just one of four points from the opening weekend of the 48-game season.
Canuck coaches and managers spent all of last season analyzing the goaltending situation, doing the math and projecting Schneider and Luongo, then determined the club should change starters and trade the best netminder in franchise history – a player whom they valued highly enough to sign to a 12-year, $64-million contract.
One game or two shouldn’t change those plans. Schneider, ghastly in Saturday’s 7-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks but no worse than most teammates, should go straight back into the net on Wednesday when the Canucks play the Calgary Flames.
Schneider is the No. 1. That status is supposed to carry the benefit of the doubt. There have been numerous times the last six seasons when Luongo was given the latitude to struggle, and playing the backup was secondary to the need to get the starter going. Because, ultimately, it was Luongo’s team and the Canucks would go as far as he carried them.
Schneider needs to get going now. Three weeks removed from his month-long lockout holiday in the Swiss League and without the aid of even one pre-season game before Saturday, Schneider needs to play. There should be no hesitation by anyone in the organization about starting him Wednesday.
But Vigneault may as well have thrown a Kardashian into the soap opera when he declined to name his starter after the Edmonton game.
“I’ll let you know Tuesday,” he said.
What is there to think about? Schneider is the Canucks’ No. 1 goalie or he isn’t. And if he doesn’t start Wednesday, he’s not the No. 1 goalie. And if that’s the case, what the heck have the last nine months been about?
Sunday night was time for Vigneault to rally around Schneider, to not let the question linger about who will be leading the team this season.
On Saturday, Vigneault said it was merely one game for Schneider, although it was actually only 26 minutes and 37 seconds.
“How did it look?” he said when asked to assess Schneider. “He tried hard. You’re going to have nights like that.”
But maybe it wasn’t just one game.
“One game does not make a season,” Luongo said. “The guy has tremendous talent. He’s one of the best goalies in the league, in my opinion, already. It goes without saying that nothing changes.”
Well, it sure went without saying in Vigneault’s press conference.
Luongo, whose support of the teammate who deposed him is far beyond what anyone could have expected or asked for, said after Saturday’s game that he would talk to Schneider in a quiet moment and tell him it was only one game and to not be distracted by the wildfire in the media.
That too, Luongo said, is part of being a No. 1 goalie.
“When things go well, you’re praised,” he said. “And when things don’t go well, it falls on your shoulders a bit more. That’s part of learning. That’s part of being a starter.
“Cory’s a very smart guy. Good head on his shoulders. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be ready to go. I have no doubt that he’ll respond well.”
Yes, but when will Schneider have the chance?
After Wednesday’s home game, the Canucks play three games in four nights in California, starting Friday in Anaheim.
Luongo showcased himself on Sunday, displaying his ability to make big saves, although he accepted blame for the two goals that beat him.
As the final seconds ticked down in the middle period, Oiler phenom Jordan Eberle cut around top Canuck defenceman Alex Edler and, from a sharp angle, roofed a world-class backhand into the top corner.
That cut a 2-0 Canuck lead in half. Ales Hemsky, unchecked and at full speed, tied it with 5:55 remaining in regulation time when he squeezed a shot from the right-wing faceoff dot between Luongo’s arm and torso.
Hemsky and Sam Gagner used dekes to beat Luongo in the shootout.
Luongo lost his first start last season in a shootout against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The year before, the Los Angeles Kings beat Luongo and the Canucks in the tie-breaker on opening night.
“Both goals I thought I should have made the save,” Luongo said of regulation time. “Mostly, guys attacking the net from the side, I want to make sure I’m square and not giving up anything.”
Luongo’s timing is off because this weekend would, in other years, have been the start of the pre-season. The lack of rehearsal time is showing for the Canucks. Schneider didn’t play as badly as he did Saturday in any game last season.
“We’re a team, you know?” Luongo said of he and Schneider. “No matter what the roles are, this year or in the past, I think it’s important that we’ve got each other’s back. We both play for the Vancouver Canucks and we both want to win games for the team.”
And so far, both have failed.