It was the hardest decision the Vancouver Canucks coaches have made during the six-season tenure of Alain Vigneault, anointing the ascension of Cory Schneider and the end of Roberto Luongo’s reign.
Facing the humiliation of a first-round sweep, head coach Vigneault and other key Canucks personnel decided to bench Luongo and start backup Schneider in a must-win Game 4 on the road against the Los Angeles Kings.
“You have no idea how incredibly difficult that is, because of the amount of respect that we have for Roberto, not only as goalie and a professional, but as a man,” Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness said on Thursday. “That’s probably the most difficult decision Alain’s had to make in our tenure here.”
The call, an aggressive gamble based on Schneider’s sterling performances this season, worked. The repercussions, for Vancouver, are vast. Schneider, who also played in Game 3, is the likely starter for Game 5 on Sunday, though the decision has not been made public. It also likely leaves Luongo on the bench, again, watching playoff hockey for a third successive game.
And, now, it even appears he could be on the trading block some day. Speculation on Thursday seemed certain the Canucks would seek to trade Luongo in the off-season. How that unfolds is unclear, with Luongo's giant contract and the goaltender dictating any destination (he has a no-trade clause).
In the meantime, though, Bowness on Thursday spoke about how hard Luongo’s ride in Vancouver, especially recently, has been. Welcomed in 2006 as a hero, fans eventually soured to the point of widespread disgust. During practice several weeks ago, Bowness skated up to the netminder to offer a bit of empathy.
“I said, ‘Man, I know I’ve got thick skin, but I can’t believe what you go through around here.’”
Thursday was an off-day for most of the Canucks after flying home late Wednesday night. Bowness, who joined the team for 2006-07 when Vigneault was hired as coach, spoke in place of Vigneault. Daniel Sedin was the only player available.
Luongo was not seen, nor was Schneider.
Sedin, while saluting both of Vancouver’s goaltenders, acknowledged Schneider’s “calming influence” on the rest of the team.
The 26-year-old Schneider, in the biggest start of his career Wednesday, saved the Canucks’ season. Los Angeles immediately blasted hard at Vancouver, led by a driving fore-check that stoked Canucks disarray, and the Kings quickly went up 1-0. It was the only marker Schneider would give up, stopping 43 shots by night’s end.
“In a game we had to win, all the momentum early was on their [the Kings]side,” Bowness said. “And Schneids gave us the opportunity to win the game. He kept us in there until we found our game, until we got some jump back, got some rhythm and some flow into our game. That’s what he did for us. His impact was immediate.”
Vancouver still faces a steep climb. Down 3-1 in the series, the Canucks odds’ are only slightly better than when they were down 3-0. In pro hockey, baseball, and basketball, just four of 297 teams (1.3 per cent) have come back from three down in a playoff series, according to whowins.com. Of 3-1 series, 43 teams out of 531 have come back, less than one out of 10 or 8.1 per cent.
The re-emergence of Sedin, the star scorer out for nearly a month because of concussion, has buoyed the squad and makes the extremely unlikely a bit more possible. It certainly helped the comatose power play, which managed crucial goals in the second and third periods.
Sedin on Thursday said the series changed in Game 3, when the Canucks played well but lost. He took no credit for being a force to change the series. During the Canucks’ lousy first period on Wednesday, Sedin was part of the problems.
But as the team came alive, Sedin was crucial, a leader who brought rhythm to what had been discord. He led the team in shot attempts, 11, and displayed tremendous fitness for a man out of the NHL for 28 days, playing 19 minutes 33 series, the second-most among Vancouver forwards (nine seconds less than twin Henrik).
On Thursday, Sedin skated during a light practice with a group of nine other Canucks, mostly players not in the regular lineup. He wasn’t happy with his slow start Wednesday night but said his head – the concussion – was never a problem.
The problem is being down 3-1 to a team with an amazing defence and goaltender.
“I like their chances better than ours – but we’ll take it game by game,” Sedin said. “We’re still alive. We’re going to play on Sunday. That’s all we know right now.”