And the coin flip says…Cory Schneider.
With Schneider getting the nod Saturday night against the Calgary Flames, he will have lodged six starts this season, one more than his putative backup, Roberto Luongo.
It looks like Luongo's coin-toss luck ran aground Saturday morning, as Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and trusted coin gave a second straight start to Schneider, the backup-turned-starter-turned-starter-kind-of.
On Friday, to add some wry zest to the at-times stultifying conversation of "who's the starter," Luongo's Twitter alter-ego @strombone1 tweeted at a new parody account -- @AVsCoin, asking, "Do you accept bribes?" Evidently not, it seems, but, still, the levity is welcome, and the joke was the latest in a string of Luongo humour, such as the beauty from a week ago: "Being a backup is a lot funner than I anticipated........."
Laughs aside, even if smiles are too rare in this cold game on ice, Luongo of course has been on a ridiculous run this season, best highlighted by a single stat. Luongo, among goalies with at least three starts, leads the league in even-strength save percentage, 0.967, giving up just four goals on 120 shots. To illustrate how ridiculously high that percentage is, last year's full-season leader, with at least 20 starts, was Brian Elliott of St. Louis at 0.945.
Taking a look at this year's even-strength save percentage, however, also reveals something more: Schneider is no schlub, even as he has been somewhat eclipsed by the guy whose job he took last spring. In Schneider's five starts to date – one of which, opening night, was a truncated performance, like this shortened season – Schneider is at 0.935, which is strong enough for 10th best in the National Hockey League (among goaltenders with three starts). It is, in fact, better than Schneider did last year, when he booked 0.931 at even-strength, basically tied with Luongo at 0.929.
So, for Vancouver, the winter of 2013 is looking a lot like the winter of 2012. Hot goaltending and so-so scoring (the Canucks don't have a single scorer in the league's top 60 point-getters) is the same story as the end of last season, when Vancouver rode great goaltending amid weak goal-scoring to a second-consecutive Presidents' Trophy – until the team hit an even-hotter goaltender, the eventual winner of the Conn Smythe, Jonathan Quick. This season, again, the Canucks again ride the hot goaltenders – both of them are hot, even if that doesn't look obvious, with Schneider at 3-2 and Luongo at 3-0-2. But it's registered where it counts, the standings, as Vancouver leads their division, which is something for a team that's a notorious slow starter. And the 5-2-2 opening could be called especially impressive, given the absence of two top-6 forwards, Ryan Kesler and David Booth.
So, even amid the some howls of "goalie controversy," Schneider stacks up fairly well against Luongo, even if Luongo's even-strength save percentage is otherworldly, by which one can only mean unsustainable.
That they have played essentially the same number of games, with Schneider getting one more start, echoes what The Globe and Mail reported after the second game of the season that the team would in fact use a perhaps-unconventional platoon of the two, rather than Schneider as clear No. 1 starter and Luongo riding the bench. As team president Mike Gillis said this past week, "We don't have the luxury, as you guys like to think about, people's feelings as opposed to wins. We don't have that luxury. We have to win games."
Where Schneider was otherworldly last year – read: unsustainable – was when the Canucks were shorthanded, and Schneider delivered an NHL-best 0.959 save percentage against other team's power players, giving up just seven goals. To illustrate how wild that performance was, Schneider was – among goaltenders with at least 20 starts – three-percentage points better than the next closest goaltender, that other backup-turned-starter Tuukka Rask. To put it in broader perspective, the median save-percentage for all goaltenders last year while their team was shorthanded was 0.870.
Where Schneider has, somewhat, struggled this year is shorthanded play. He's already given up six goals, one less than all his work last year, for a save-percentage of 0.818, which isn't great, but it's not much worse than Luongo at 0.826. Vancouver, in general, has struggled on the penalty kill, giving up basically a goal every four times shorthanded, 76.7 % to be exact, which is ranked 20th in the league, compared with the Canucks' 86% penalty-kill last year, which ranked 6th.
All in, Schneider is pretty much the goaltender he was last year, if not a little better, minus his freaky performance when the Canucks were killing penalties. It was something that is unlikely to ever be repeated for a long stretch, much like Luongo's magical play this year on even-strength will surely slump somewhat as the season wears on.