Fair or not, Roberto Luongo is the symbol for all that has gone wrong with the Vancouver Canucks over the last two games, and over the last three playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Canucks lead their Western Conference quarter-final 3-2 over the defending NHL champions, but have lost consecutive contests by a combined 12-2 count. Luongo has allowed 10 goals and has been pulled for Cory Schneider in both games, recalling ghosts of postseasons past and raising questions about whether he should continue as Vancouver's No. 1.
Against Chicago, no Canuck represents the here-we-go-again doldrums more than the starting goaltender, and no Canuck demonstrates it more readily on the ice.
For that reason, among others, Luongo needs to take a seat in Game 6.
Not necessarily a permanent seat, or something that would threaten his long-term standing with the Canucks, but a reprieve from all that ails him and his teammates. A 12-year, $64 million U.S. contract, which includes a no-trade clause for the next six years, means the Canucks have no choice but to bank on Luongo in the future, but they most certainly have a choice for Sunday's game at the United Center.
Thy name is Schneider.
In his first full NHL season, the former first-round draft pick has developed into arguably the league's premier backup, earning 16 wins in 22 starts and gaining trust at every step. Calm and steady, both in the crease and the dressing room, Schneider is the antithesis to the emotional and high-strung Luongo, and brings a between-the-pipes demeanor that Vancouver could sure use about now.
Eventually, Schneider is viewed as the franchise's biggest trade chip, but he was kept through the deadline this year as a safety net for Luongo, in case something went wrong. Something has gone wrong, whether Alain Vigneault is ready to admit it or not.
The Canucks head coach preemptively declared Luongo his starter minutes after a 5-0 loss Thursday in Game 5. It was a faithful and noble gesture, if not the most tactical decision, especially after what had just transpired.
Luongo is a feeler. He's fragile, he has a long memory, and there is deep pain when he fails personally.
He's failing against the Blackhawks, again, and he evidently carried Game 4's struggles into Game 5, as Marian Hossa beat him with a simple shot at the six-minute mark. When Hossa beat him cleanly on a second-period breakaway to make it 4-0, it was clear that the Blackhawks had succeeded in rattling Luongo, and Vigneault had to pull up his thoroughbred to race another day.
Just not Sunday.
The Canucks need a game-changer. They need something -- or someone -- to alter the tempo of this series. They need someone who represents a clean slate, not someone loaded with baggage.
As they try for a third time to eliminate the Hawks -- or inch closer to the infamy of becoming just the fourth NHL team to blow a 3-0 series lead -- the Canucks cannot afford to have a goalie with a rehabilitating psyche in net. Tempting as the answer may be, they can't afford to see how Luongo bounces back, and whether he's finally ready to pass the playoff-hardened test.
Too much history. Too much at stake.
The Canucks had a 117-point regular season, and while their Stanley Cup window may be open for a few years, this is a glorious opportunity that cannot be squandered. Not in the first round against Chicago. And not because of Roberto Luongo.
Game 7 before an anxious Rogers Arena is a frightening prospect for the Canucks, so every available lever must be used to win Game 6. If that means breaking convention and changing goaltenders, than so be it.
Just don't go down with Luongo in Game 6, and hope that Schneider can save the day in Game 7. That's asking too much of a young goaltender, and it would prove that Vigneault hasn't particularly thought this through.
Schneider may not, unequivocally, give the Canucks a better chance to win Game 6 than Luongo, but at this stage of the series, he presents less risk. And if Schneider allows a bad goal early on, his teammates won't look back at the crease and see a goalie who has allowed adversity to snowball when up against the Hawks.
Benching Luongo may be too crushing for him to take, but there's an equal chance it makes him furious, and brings out every ounce of his fierce competitiveness. Better an angry Roberto Luongo than a Roberto Luongo who is wallowing in self-pity.
We've seen that too many times before.