Last Tuesday night, Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault met with his goaltenders –Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider – and gave the start in the must-win Game 4 to Schneider, the young understudy.
Schneider, who at 26 is seven years younger than Luongo, delivered a virtuoso performance to lead the Canucks to a victory. Schneider will start Game 5 on Sunday, with the Los Angeles Kings up 3-1 and trying to end the best-of-seven playoff series in Vancouver.
On Friday, Luongo faced reporters for the first time since he lost the starter's job. For five minutes, he answered questions, a ball cap on, his hands folded behind his back as always.
Luongo is “100 per cent” behind Schneider and presented himself as the model teammate, supporting his squad, even as he is on the bench for the most important games of the season.
He wouldn't touch on how it felt when Vigneault delivered the news.
“I don't think that's important for you guys to know,” Luongo told the throng of reporters in the Canucks locker room.
The only hint he gave of any inner pain, sitting and watching games he had expected to play, was two words: “It's tough.” Otherwise, he focused on his role as friend and teammate.
“[Schneider]is going to be a top-notch goalie in this league for a long time,” Luongo said. “We're good friends. He's been behind me 100 per cent since Day 1. … He works extremely hard in practice. He's always been a great team guy. So, I'm going to do the same for him.”
The coach also avoided the details of the Canucks' biggest decision this season.
“I don't want to get into the reason why I made that call,” Vigneault said. “As a coach you've got to do what you feel is best for that game, for the team, and that's what I felt was the best for us in the last game.”
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said the change was about jarring his team to action.
“[Luongo]understands that we needed a momentum change,” Gillis told Vancouver all-sports radio station Team 1040 on Friday. “Sometimes, you just need a change. When you face the circumstances we faced, you have to have the guts to make difficult decisions and try and upend the momentum.”
Gillis parried questions on Luongo's future. Asked what the move to start Schneider means for the future of the two goalies this summer, and next season (Schneider is a restricted free agent), the GM said: “I don't know yet.”
In the present, Vigneault evoked the precarious nature of the quarterback position in football, where a backup has to be poised should the starter falter or fall.
“Roberto's future is real simple. We've got to focus on Sunday,” the coach said. “He's no different than a quarterback. A quarterback's a hit away from going back in the game, or Schneids taking a puck somewhere, etc. He's got to focus on Sunday like the rest of our group.”
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin – teammates with Luongo for the past six seasons – didn't make any declarations, but his carefully selected words spoke clearly. No one blames Luongo for Vancouver's losses in Games 1 and 2, in which Luongo played “well,” Sedin said. But in Games 3 and 4, he said Schneider played “great.”
“I understand if Lu is real disappointed, but he hasn't shown it, at all,” Sedin said.
“It's tough, because you know him so well, you've played with him for a long period of time, you know what kind of competitor he is. He wants to be out there. But again, we make decisions based on winning games, and sometimes those decisions are extremely tough.”
Schneider played the biggest game of his life last Wednesday, stopping 43 of 44 shots. On Sunday, it will again be his biggest test, with the season on the line.
“This is the one where the stakes are the highest,” Schneider said, “and everyone’s watching.”