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Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider deflects the puck during the third period of their NHL game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Vancouver, British Columbia March 26, 2013. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)
Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider deflects the puck during the third period of their NHL game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Vancouver, British Columbia March 26, 2013. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

All eyes on Vancouver’s net as playoff opener looms Add to ...

When no one was looking, the “injured” Cory Schneider practised last Sunday at an otherwise quiet and empty Rogers Arena with Vancouver Canucks goaltending coach Rollie Melanson.

On Monday, Schneider practised with his team, his first in-action, on-ice appearance since April 22, when he backstopped his team to a stirring 3-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

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He was subsequently declared to be hurt, a mysterious ailment having waylaid the 27-year-old. Schneider was listed as “day-to-day,” as backup Roberto Luongo was handed the reins to play net in the final two games of the regular season – in which the Canucks tanked and Luongo, in the last minutes last Saturday, imploded.

Oh, the drama. If only it was actual drama.

While the Canucks won’t say it, for whatever reason – perhaps a pathetic ploy to keep their first-round opponent, the San Jose Sharks, on some sort of an anxious edge – it does appear Schneider is the starter for Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Wednesday.

Just don’t ask head coach Alain Vigneault (whose job, quite possibly, is on the line if the Canucks can’t get out of the first round). The starter will be (publicly) anointed day-of, on Wednesday.

Here’s betting on the guy who has won eight in a row at Rogers Arena, giving up seven goals and posting three shutouts, and not the guy who gave up seven goals to the Edmonton Oilers to close the 2013 season.

“Any day-to-day injury is day-to-day, and you make it the day of the game,” Vigneault said after a spirited practice Monday.

Schneider appeared hale and spry, playing the full practice much like he always does. Asked if he was “getting better,” Schneider was concise: “Clearly, yeah.”

The bigger issue for Vancouver is not necessarily the man in its net. It’s Antti Niemi, the Sharks backstop, who tied for the most wins in the league (24) and was No. 10 in even-strength save percentage (.930), just behind Schneider (.931).

That said, the Sharks were just 5-5 in their final 10 games and are terrible on the road – 8-14-2 – with their eight road wins tied for the fewest of any playoff team(with the Los Angeles Kings). At home, however, the Sharks have lost just twice this year, the best of any NHL team.

For Ryan Kesler, the searing importance of winning home games – after going 0-3 against L.A. last spring – is obvious. But unlike last year, the Canucks have two primary players – Kesler and Daniel Sedin – at full health. This series marks the first time Kesler can say that in the playoffs since Vancouver faced San Jose in the 2011 conference final.

“Last year was a learning experience,” Kesler said of the Canucks getting beat up by the Kings. “The team that wants it more, the team that has more will, is going to win.”

San Jose and Vancouver are similar teams and have near-identical records – Vancouver two points better at 26-15-7 than San Jose at 25-16-7. “It’s going to,” Kesler said, “come down to hard work, and will.”

And goaltending, as it often does.

Even if Schneider looks close to ready, Wednesday will mark nine days away from game action. If it does come back to Luongo, it would be an appropriately strange end to his time in Vancouver. Edmonton’s 7-2 demolition last Saturday certainly wasn’t, with the final five goals coming in less than four minutes late in the third period. Luongo, afterward, stormed out of the arena.

On Monday, after practice, he was more reflective. “I just wanted to get on the bus by myself,” Luongo said. “It’s tough to get embarrassed. It’s happened one too many times for me.”

Vancouver fans remember, remember more clearly than Luongo’s two shutouts in the 2011 Stanley Cup final. And that is why all eyes are on Schneider, and his convalescence.

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