January 7, 2012

Starting Schneider a pragmatic, not sentimental choice

By Kirk Luedeke

Ever since Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault named backup Cory Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.) his starter for the long-anticipated first match between the 2011 Stanley Cup finalists, there has been no shortage of people chalking up the choice to Schneider’s Boston roots.

Wrong. Try again.

Vigneault is an NHL coach, and he’s not prone to letting sentiments get in the way of what he’s trying to do with the Northwest Division-leading Canucks.

Lest we forget what happened in Boston last June in Games 3, 4 and 6 of the Stanley Cup championship series when ugly Roberto Luongo meltdowns paved the way for Lord Stanley’s return to the Olde Towne for the first time in 39 years.

Now is not the time to revisit tire-pumping or Luongo’s ill-conceived comments after a post-Game 5 shutout when he offered up his opinion of counterpart Tim Thomas’ play after surrendering just one goal in a 1-0 contest. One could argue that Luongo’s unsolicited soundbite may not only have stirred the fire in a reeling giant, giving the Bruins a clearcut reason to take it to the Canucks and Luongo in Games 6 and 7, but probably became a historical footnote and cautionary tale to every athlete at any level to zip the claptrap until the championship is secure.

In any case, Vigneault announced Friday that Luongo would not be taking his place between the pipes for Saturday’s matinee against Boston, the scene of the crime where “Bobby Lou” went 0-3 with an 8.05 goals against average and .773 save percentage. Instead, the Canucks are going with the former Phillips Andover standout and 1st-round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft in Schneider, who came in for relief not once, but twice for Luongo last June, stopping 39 of 41 Boston shots.

Those numbers, representative of a .951 save percentage against a team that was shooting out the lights in the TD Garden, scoring 23 goals on 225 shots in the trio of games, only tells half the story.

Schneider entered under the most extreme of circumstances for a goaltender each time: with the opponent having built big leads on some soft/questionable goals, the relief goalie’s club reeling and dejected and assailed by the cacophony of a fired up and hostile Boston crowd.

In both appearances, Schneider stopped the bleeding and exhibited the kind of calm and poise that just about everyone expected Luongo to show.

Make no mistake- Schneider is still the No. 2 in Vancouver. You would think that Luongo would have demanded to get the start Saturday in Boston, especially given his latest hot streak. He posted a shutout in his last start and Vigneault would be riding the proverbial “hot hand” who has gone 10-3-2 since December.

Instead, Vigneault left very little to speculation by naming Schneider a full 24 hours in advance. His respectable 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage shows that the former Boston College workhorse who came close to an NCAA championship on several occasions with the Eagles but could not quite finish the deal, has earned the chance to play in front of his hometown crowd.

Only those who only wish to believe precisely what they are told can look at this decision as one to put Schneider in position to play in front of friends and family. While that sentiment works at lower levels perhaps, the real reason for the choice, beyond the fact that Schneider has earned it as a viable NHL netminder, is to minimize distractions and take some of the crowd’s bite out of it from the start.

Will the TD Garden faithful be fired up at puck drop? Absolutely.

However, think of the energy currents that would be firing around the building rafters and stands if No. 1 in the blue and green was manning the pipes opposite Thomas? Is it going to be the same for Schneider?

That answer is pretty obvious.

Sure- there will be “Where is Luongo?” chants a-plenty this afternoon. Roberto himself is even trending heavily on Twitter today despite the fact that he’ll be occupying the seat he got to know well last June. However, by going with Schneider, Vigneault has effectively countered the thunderdome effect that would have put his club behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

Now, his team can just focus on playing on a 60-minute game without wondering about that nagging “what if” feeling that would undoubtedly occupy the space in the back of their minds. After all, as much as we expect NHL players to be robots who play the game impervious to external factors and influences, that is simply not possible.

No matter how much lip service might be paid to the idea that this is “just another regular season game” by both Boston and Vancouver players, if Luongo was in net, the Canucks would surely find themselves grappling with the simple thought: it can’t happen again, can it?

By starting Schneider, Vigneault removes that element of doubt from the equation. This is not to say that Luongo did not have the option to close the door behind him in the visiting coach’s office and demand the right to redemption. However, it has become apparent that Vancouver’s $5.3 million dollar man did not do so.

That puts 900k guy Schneider in the hot seat. And, if his play in limited action last June is any indication, it’s a smart choice for the Canucks.

If there will be any rematch between Vancouver and Boston for anything other than regular season bragging rights, then that will have to wait until June of 2012. Both clubs will have to earn their way there.

For now, consider this a minor move in the chess match that is an entire hockey season for Vigneault, and it is if nothing else, a pragmatic one.

Coaches don’t reach the highest level by making choices from the heart. And should Schneider find a way to slow down the NHL’s hottest offense today, Vigneault will get a lot of credit for having the stones to go there.