In the locker stall beside Cory Schneider, who is not yet in the room after practice, sits Jannik Hansen, a sharp-shooting Dane on the ice with a stick, and elsewhere with his tongue.
Asked how Schneider, the Vancouver Canucks’ ascendant ace goaltender, overcame several months of uneven play to suddenly become a candidate for the Vézina Trophy, Hansen delivers a jesting poke to his in-absentia teammate: “He’s not as lazy any more.”
Then, more seriously, Hansen said Schneider, who has carried the Canucks the past three weeks – four shutouts and nine wins in 11 outings – has “a tonne of confidence. He’s never out of position. You really have to beat him to score on him.”
Schneider enters the room. Hansen says he’s been talking about him – but in a (mostly) good way – and mimes working a tire pump, which itself is a double-entendre joke in a locker room whose members still include starter-turned-backup Roberto Luongo. Schneider and Hansen go on to jaw about how Hansen didn’t manage to score on Schneider in practice.
Happy times have returned to the Canucks room. Winning will do that. And the victorious run, without question, is square on shoulders of Schneider.
The 27-year-old has conjured the goaltending team management believed he could deliver when they made the radical decision last April to bench the $64-million man, Luongo, in the middle of the playoffs, and stake the team’s future on Schneider.
The year started ugly. After a lockout sojourn in Switzerland, games on the larger ice surface that half-scrambled Schneider’s form, the goalie was perforated in the first NHL game of the season by the Anaheim Ducks (five goals on 14 shots).
Schneider struggled to regain form. Head coach Alain Vigneault talked about having two starters – “two No. 1s” – and joked of using a coin flip to choose between Luongo and Schneider. Through 28 games, Schneider and Luongo had started 14 apiece.
In that 28th game, Luongo made a fourth consecutive start, but lost. It was March 18, Schneider’s 27th birthday, spent sitting on the bench.
Schneider got the start in the next outing, won the tight scrap against the St. Louis Blues – and the run was on.
He doesn’t pin his resurgence on a single moment, a specific fraction of time where it all coalesced. It took time to find the rhythm. Given his great play as a backup, it is forgotten that he has not yet played 100 games in the NHL. He points to the great Martin Brodeur, and the instincts developed over 1,000-plus games. Some of Schneider’s key honing came during long work in practice, in the last run of games Luongo started, to fortify his game, the precision and attack.
“I don’t know if it clicked but maybe the urgency kicked in, maybe subconsciously I sort of said, ‘I better figure this out one way or another otherwise I won’t be around so much longer,’” Schneider said Tuesday. “I don’t know if it was one exact moment. There was a game where I played well and just sort of went from there. It’s that confidence, belief in yourself.”
The results are spectacular. He’s yielded just 13 goals in 11 games and booked four shutouts, which gives him a total of five this year, tied for the league lead. He is also now tied for the league lead (for goalies with at least 20 stars) in save percentage at 0.928 with Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
Schneider’s play will be crucial to the Canucks future. The Sedin twins, former back-to-back scoring champs, have failed to even put up a point a game, showing their age at 32. And even as Ryan Kesler has returned from injury, Vancouver has now lost defenceman Chris Tanev and winger Chris Higgins – with Tanev out “indefinitely” and Higgins “hopefully” ready for the playoffs, Vigneault said.
Through his struggles, Schneider said his confidence didn’t significantly flag.
“You see guys every year, the year before they’re on top of the league, and the next year, they just can’t find it for some reason, and the next year, they bounce back, or whatever it may be.”
Schneider knew he was on the verge. The difference between so-so (save percentage of 0.910) and amazing (0.928) is something of a sliver, a couple goals over 100 shots.
“Can I trim a goal off here? Can I make that save there?” Schneider said of his thinking. “I felt I was only a percentage off.”
Now, in his first year as a starter, he is in contention for a Vézina nomination as the league’s top goalie. The Canucks future depends on it.