The night promised a goaltending duel.
At one end of the rink, Cory Schneider, the 25-year-old Vancouver Canucks sophomore who had displaced Roberto Luongo and began the night as the league’s hottest goaltender.
At the other, the 6-foot-5’ Finn Pekka Rinne, one of last year’s Vezina finalists.
And then, Thursday night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, the wild, and sometimes odd, shootout began.
When the bright glow of the often-flashing red lights, behind both nets, finally faded, the Vancouver Canucks juggernaut had stalled, hurt when the magic Schneider train badly derailed in a strange first period, and further undercut when his replacement, Roberto Luongo, also proved shaky.
After Vancouver fell quickly behind in the first, 2-0 on just two Nashville shots, the Canucks bounced back, up 5-3 in the second, before it was tied 5-5 at the end of two. The final tally of 6-5 Nashville ended the Canucks’ five-game winning streak, and slowed Vancouver’s ascent back to the top echelons of the NHL.
“It was an entertaining game,” observed Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault.
Despite the loss - which dropped Vancouver to 14-10-1 and down to seventh in the West from sixth - Vigneault wasn’t upset. He noted the Vancouver powerfully outplayed Nashville and the only real disappointment was giving up three power-play goals on five chances.
“You’re going to get some games like this,” Vigneault said.
The hero was Nashville’s Mike Fisher, who scored his second of the night when he put a backhand over Luongo’s outstretched blocker - the goaltender didn’t really have much of a chance as Vancouver’s defence failed. The winner came with about a minute left in the game, which marred a top-flight period on offence for the Canucks, a push that failed to deliver a winning goal.
The second hero of the night was the unlikeliest of candidates, Nashville backup Anders Lindback, who stopped each one of the 19 shots he faced. It can be declared with 99-per-cent-plus confidence that Lindback was nobody’s pre-game pick of four 'tenders to actually be the one that kept pucks out of the net.
Schneider stopped two of five shots. Luongo, playing for the first time since Nov. 13, didn’t do much better, stopping just 12 of 15.
One reporter asked why Schneider was pulled. Vigneault seemed mildly annoyed.
“Do I really need to explain that?”
So, as of presstime, it was not yet known whether Luongo will get the call to finally start a game, on Sunday against the visiting Calgary Flames, but the odds probably lean in his favour.
Against Nashville, beyond Ryan Kesler briefly lying atop the Predators net, the most peculiar thing about Thursday night’s proceedings was the fact that Schneider’s save percentage, 19 minutes into the game, was zero. This reflects badly on both Schneider, whose red-hot hand went dead cold, and Nashville. The Predators' first two goals beat Schneider almost exactly the same way, blocker side, high, from the faceoff circle, the first on a cracker slapshot from David Legwand, the second on a soft backhand from Fisher.
The first period ended 3-1 to Nashville - Schneider’s save percentage at 40 - and the long-absent Luongo returned for the second. Vancouver’s gunners welcomed their old pal back to the ice with an impressive flurry of four goals, the last of which had Rinne skating to the bench midway through the period.
Throughout the game, Vancouver’s passing looked great. One particularly memorable sequence had captain Henrik Sedin biding his time behind Rinne’s net like Wayne Gretzky. Henrik finally stepped out, to Rinne’s left, spun, and sent a backhand in front that Alexandre Burrows deftly tipped up to give Vancouver its first lead of the night, 4-3.
But Luongo did nothing with the 5-3 lead, and it was soon tied, Luongo not looking that much better than the two yanked starters.
Aaron Volpatti, who tied the game with his first goal of the year, was another of the unlikely stories of the evening. He wasn’t even supposed to play, but a Canucks front office clerical error is believed to have pushed the planned return of Mason Raymond off until Sunday. Volpatti, who was running afternoon errands, got the call and hustled home to eat, and then to the rink.
“I was just hanging around in front of the net,” the 26-year-old from Revelstoke, B.C., said of his goal.
Of the game he said: “Some crazy things happened. It was entertaining for fans.”
Schneider, who was first star in each of Vancouver’s five wins before Thursday night, was somewhat prophetic earlier in the day about what was to come after darkness fell on the first day of December. Since the start of 2010-11, including last season’s playoffs, Vancouver had been 7-4 against Nashville, but it was always Luongo between the pipes.
Schneider told reporters that Nashville was a “tricky team,” with a “less traditional offensive” - read: erratic - that was at times tough to defend against.
“We saw last year in the playoffs that they’ll whip everything at the net,” said Schneider.
The third was a tilt, with Vancouver in full-on flight. Among the near goals was defenceman Dan Hamhuis - a shutdown man who has never been likened to Gretzky - pulling a spin-o-rama to undress a Nashville defender and nearly break the tie. Instead, Vancouver booked its first L since getting smoked 5-1 by Chicago at home in mid-November, with Schneider in net, the last game before he turned into a magician, a performance now concluded.
Hurdle the net
On a night of oddities, Ryan Kesler pulled off probably the strangest manoeuvre. With about six minutes to go in the second, he drove to the night but was stymied by Fisher, backchecking, who ended up half-shoving Kesler into the backup goaltender Anders Lindback, and against the net. Kesler -- figuring he might as well roll with momentum -- then was briefly, fully on top of the net, before he flipped over and came down on his skates behind it. Back on the bench, we can confirm a smile, almost a laugh, snuck onto the face of the centre, whose play of late has exploded, as he recaptures his Selke-calibre form after hip surgery in the off-season.