Cory Schneider started. Roberto Luongo finished. And the Vancouver Canucks are off to Game 7 Tuesday, on the verge of NHL infamy.
In a trilogy filled with drama, the most dramatic turn in the Canucks-Blackhawks saga transpired on Easter Sunday at the United Center in Chicago. The Blackhawks emerged with a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 6 of their Western Conference quarter-final, and knotted the series 3-3.
Rookie Ben Smith pounced on a rebound some 15 minutes into the extra session and chipped it past Luongo to keep the Stanley Cup defending champions alive. Chicago is now one victory away from becoming the fourth team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 disadvantage and win a best-of-seven series.
"All year long, we've used both goalies, and to tell you the truth, I just went with my gut," Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said when explaining why he started Schneider over Luongo. "Sometimes the book is overrated."
Less than three minutes into the third period, however, Chicago's Michael Frolik was awarded a penalty shot after being tripped on a breakaway by Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis. It came 90 seconds after Kevin Bieksa had given the visitors a 3-2 lead by wisely jumping into the rush and batting a Mason Raymond rebound past Corey Crawford.
Frolik beat Schneider cleanly to tie the score 3-3, but the goalie stayed down after doing the splits, a quadriceps muscle having locked up because of dehydration. Schneider, who is available for Game 7, said he has struggled with cramping since his days in the minor leagues, and that he battled through it during the second period but couldn't continue after overextending his leg on the penalty shot.
Luongo, meanwhile, was the best player in this series through three games, but has also had his share of stinkers against the Blackhawks during three playoff series. He allowed five and seven goals in series-clinching victories the past two years, and had given up 10 in a little over 60 minutes during the past two games. He was pulled from both.
"I put the team ahead of myself," Luongo said of his benching. "I wanted to win this game just as much as anyone."
Vigneault said he arrived at his decision Friday, after travelling to Chicago and speaking with his assistants and management. He told the goaltenders Saturday, and said that Luongo was immediately in Schneider's corner.
"You're dealt all sorts of situations throughout your career, and you learn to deal with them," Luongo said.
The teams entered the third period tied 2-2, as the Canucks blew two leads in the opening 40 minutes and lost defenceman Sami Salo to injury just eight minutes into the game.
Daniel Sedin opened the scoring just two minutes into the first period on a wrap-around that deflected off the shaft of Crawford's stick. Alex Burrows got the second goal late in the period, and had a three-point effort in his best ever playoff game.
Schneider made some excellent saves on a Patrick Kane breakaway, and during a two-man disadvantage in the middle period, but his eagerness to play the puck behind the net cost Vancouver two goals.
On the second occasion, in the middle frame, he cleared it directly onto Kane's stick, and couldn't recover to his crease in time. Dave Bolland found the empty net, tying the score 2-2.