The day after his 27th birthday, Cory Schneider got the nod to start between the pipes for the Vancouver Canucks.
Last June, when he signed a three-year, $12-million (U.S.) contract, he did so with the distinct idea he’d be the No. 1 guy in net, after usurping long-time starter Roberto Luongo in the middle of the playoffs.
Schneider spent his 27th birthday on the bench.
Tuesday – at home against the St. Louis Blues, with Vancouver, and Schneider, in the throes of a terrible skid – marked the supposed No. 1 guy’s 15th start this year, just one more than the man he was to replace. Over the full course of the season, neither goaltender has played well. When times were better, last month, it was all jokes, on Twitter, on CBC’s After Hours , in the locker room. Schneider, at the time, said there would be less levity if the team was losing.
As Tuesday unfolded, before the game, there was less levity.
Head coach Alain Vigneault spoke cryptically of a different chemistry on the 2013 Canucks – what he meant, a mystery. On Twitter, some fans, and one prominent local reporter, called for Vigneault, in his seventh year at the helm, to be fired, pointing to the mid-season hirings of (rookie skip) Dan Byslma in Pittsburgh in 2009, and (veteran chief) Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles last year, as the elusive key to the long-dreamed of, and desperately sought, Stanley Cup in Vancouver.
A poll on Team 1040 sports radio asked whether fans believed the Canucks could win just half of their final 20 games. A majority, three out of five, voted no.
On Tuesday, the majority was wrong, for now.
In a game where the Blues dictated the early pace, dominating the first period – the Canucks relying heavily on sublime saves from Schneider – Vancouver managed to conjure some semblance of its old self, sassy, confident, and slick, buoyed by a bevy of three beautiful second-period goals.
The third was tougher. The Blues scored two – the second puck deflected off defenceman Chris Tanev’s chest and Patrik Berglund scored – but at the end the 3-2 win lifted Vancouver to sixth in the Western Conference from seventh, tied in points at 34 with fifth-place St. Louis.
‘It’s a very fine line between winning and losing,” said captain Henrik Sedin afterwards.
In the first period, the Canucks were as bad as they’ve been all season, save for Schneider, who had not won a hockey game in 2 1/2 weeks and was forced to play well from the start, taking an assault of 15 shots, compared with the three his compatriots managed on hot rookie Jake Allen.
Among the big ones, mid-period, Schneider made back-to-back saves on Alex Pietrangelo on a power play, a strong left pad and then a quick glove, neutralizing the league’s best man-advantage team.
While there’s a lot of blame to go around in the recent slump – the comatose power play, key injuries – the goaltending has not been good, the reverse of a year ago, when Luongo and Schneider carried the team. Now, with $9.3-million a season committed to two men, only one of whom plays each night, the netminder has to deliver. Schneider has spoken of wanting to steal one for his team – and on Tuesday he did, his play in the first did, keeping the Canucks tied at 0-0 to open the second.
Schneider, after the game, said he is feeling “a little bit more comfortable and more like myself.”
Thinking back to his birthday, which he spent on the bench, Schneider said he did not make too much fuss about birthdays, although his long-time girlfriend feted him. Back in the crease on Tuesday night, Schneider was more like he was a year ago.
“I know the goalie I’m capable of being,” he said.
A resurrected Canucks – a stirring Vigneault speech? – showed up in the middle period, and the goals were wonderful.
Jannik Hansen, a laser slapper to the top-left corner off a perfect leading pass from Mason Raymond. Henrik Sedin, patient, patient, patient, behind the net, then backhand to his brother, who darted out from behind a crowd in the slot, and Daniel Sedin put it home, his ninth of the year and first in nine games. Then, most unlikely, recalled rookie Jordan Schroeder and a spin-a-rama pass to a streaking Dale Weise – Dale Weise! – who blasted in on Allen and drove a backhand past him.
“We understand we played like crap in the first period,” said defenceman Keith Ballard.
The Canucks, and Vigneault, are less loud, and more cerebral. “If somebody wanted to come in and yell, they could come in and yell. The point was we know what we did wrong and we corrected it.”
And on coaching changes, Ballard hasn’t experienced it – but was somewhat skeptical. While he didn’t mention it, in one instance, firing Bruce Boudreau from Washington last season hasn’t exactly worked out well (though hiring Boudreau in Anaheim has).
“You can probably look at situations where it’s been successful, and you can probably find just as many, if not more, where it hasn’t,” said Ballard. “Each coach tries to bring their own thing, their own way of being. They all have something or they wouldn’t be here.”
The W was much needed, as the stew of discontent bubbled in the city of glass. Problems remain, such as the still-comatose power play, but if the Canucks can be their second-period selves more often, Vigneault’s job will be safe, and the majority of petrified fans on sports radio will be wrong.
(And, hey, some guy named Al Arbour won his first Stanley Cup in his seventh year of coaching on Long Island, back in the day.)