Alain Vigneault could do little more than shrug, when asked about the Vancouver Canucks' goaltending on the opening night of the hockey season.
“How did it look?” said head coach Vigneault after several seconds of silence.
It looked, of course, terrible. How it looks Sunday night, against the young guns of the Edmonton Oilers, is suddenly a much more intriguing question. Cory Schneider, in his first regular season start as the Canucks No. 1 goaltender, was shellacked by the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, giving up five goals on 14 shots and not looking very good on any of them – and was yanked before the game’s halfway mark for some guy named Roberto
Luongo didn’t play especially well either.
It is obviously too early to pull a fire alarm, but the pressure on the Canucks – and Schneider – in just the second game of the season is now a little more intense than the team would like.
Vigneault announced Sunday that Luongo will start against the Oilers. The Canucks coach said the decision to start Luongo in the second of back-to-back games was decided several days ago - he doesn't like playing goalies on consecutive days and the Canucks generally map out their starters weeks if not months in advance.
"Nothing happened last night that changed my plan," Vigneault on Sunday told reporters.
Schneider, presumably, will get the start on Wednesday, a third home game against Calgary, and it also gives him more time to work out kinks in his game picked up during a sojourn in Switzerland. Still, if Luongo blanks Edmonton like the last time the Oilers visited Vancouver, well, cue the cacophony of controversy in the city they call a graveyard for goaltenders.
Whether the rest of the team shows up, too, is a question. The pounding on Saturday was hardly between the pipes alone: the Canucks defence played poorly and after the first period the offence was largely nonexistent, which in sum produced a 7-3 beating at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks – led by the ageless Teemu Selanne and his four points (which tied him, after day one of this shortened season, for the league scoring lead with Jaromir Jagr – a strange day, Saturday was).
For Vancouver, the refrain was – and has to be – it was only one game. “You’re going to have nights like that,” said Vigneault of Schneider in a terse 3 ½ minute press conference on Saturday night. “Next time I use him,” added Vigneault, “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
It will be opening night for the Oilers, sophomore Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and rookies Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, and the rest -- fresh legs – with the Canucks on their first back-to-back of the year. And while most of the Canucks played no real hockey during the lockout – it showed Saturday – and Schneider’s fairly brief time in Europe seemed to hurt not help, the Oilers were largely active during the lockout, and could arrive especially primed. The last time the team was here, for the final game of last year’s regular season, they didn’t look good at all, and were blanked 3-0 (by Luongo) as the Canucks seized their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. One would guess it is a more powerful Edmonton squad that shows up. Do they pepper Schneider – and can he stop the pucks? Can the Vancouver defence, so full of holes on Saturday – hello, Dan Hamhuis -- help their netminder?
Schneider, for one, seems immensely able to put Saturday night in the past. He planned a simple post-game evening, home to his girlfriend, and their dog, watch some TV on the couch – no sports highlights. The Canucks gave up the first goal against the Ducks but were in fact up 2-1 before it was tied late in the first, a Sheldon Souray slapshot Schneider should have stopped. It wrecked his rhythm. “I started chasing,” said Schneider of his play, and everything ended up half a second off, and boom-boom-boom, in the second period, three goals in three minutes – the second and third within nine seconds of each other. Schneider didn’t even see the hook coming. As Luongo suited up, Schneider remained in his crease until he realized he was done.
But in the locker room after the game, he was steady, and forthright. He owned the failing of an evening. The mistakes were “correctable things” – “I’ll learn quickly from this one” – and it’s all about a “reset for me.”
For Vancouver management, it was an unhappy beginning—and the important of beating Edmonton now is much more intense. What does it mean for a Luongo trade is really too abstract a question to even ask. More games must be played. It is very early. So, it is fair enough to chalk up Saturday night to one of those evenings when things go wrong, and things go wrong, in life and sports, and the Ducks are a skilled squad. But to go oh-for-two on opening weekend, especially if Edmonton takes it to Vancouver like Anaheim did, then the storm grows much more intense, so early in this half-season.
Schneider was hardly alone in his inability to stop pucks on Saturday. It was a bad day for goaltenders. Statistics analyst Cam Charron observed on Twitter that the top five goalies in save percentage last year were collectively 0.932 – and on Saturday booked 0.823. Jonathan Quick – on the afternoon the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup banner was raised – stopped 17 of 22 shots in a 5-2 loss to Chicago for a save-percentage of 0.773. It was not a Conn Smythe performance.
The last word to a man who knows something about brilliance in the crease peppered liberally with massive implosions. Luongo, coming in for Schneider, was so-so and gave up two goals on 12 shots – 0.833 save percentage – and both were soft goals he should have stopped, which he acknowledged after the game. A big cheer went up for Luongo at Rogers Arena when he hit the ice in the second. It was the exact opposite of the last time the Ducks were in town, in early April on the night before Luongo’s 33rd birthday, when he was pummelled by the Ducks and pulled for Schneider, which led to great cheers from the crowd then at Luongo’s exit and even bigger cheers on Schneider’s entrance. It is amazing to look back at that after Saturday night. Asked of the cheers he received on hitting the ice, Luongo paused and said: “I don’t even know how to describe it,” and then saying it was “a fun moment.”
Losing 7-3 is never fun. The only real was to excise it is a win against the young guns. Luongo believes Schneider will be up for the task. Luongo was, as always, a true gentleman, saluting Schneider – the man who took his job. Luongo said Schneider has a great head, one that does not get plagued by what went wrong yesterday. The rest of the Canucks will have to as well, since the Saturday night loss was a team effort in lacklustre play.
“The kids’ got a tremendous amount of talent,” said Luongo of Schneider. “I’m not worried about him.”