The Vancouver Canucks undoubtedly have one of the best goaltending tandems in the entire NHL. The only other team that stacks up to the Canucks in net are the hated Boston Bruins, with last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and rising star Tuuka Rask manning the Bruins’ net.
Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, the No. 1A and No. 1B for the St. Louis Blues, have put up incredible stats thus far, but I question if those stats are truly indicative of the play of the goalies; it seems more likely that they’re emblematic of a committed defensive team that makes games easy for its goalies.
It is safe to say that the battle for the league’s best goaltending duo comes down to the Bruins and the Canucks, just as the Stanley Cup did last year, and just as the Cup may again this year.
The Canucks’ No. 1 goalie is Roberto Luongo, the veteran the Canucks stole from the Florida Panthers in an incredibly lopsided trade in the summer of 2006. At the heart of that deal was the exchange of Todd Bertuzzi and Alex Auld for Luongo.
Bertuzzi has slowed considerably since his career-best seasons in Vancouver and Auld, who showed promise as a young goalie with the Canucks, has proven to be a career backup.
Luongo, on the other hand, has become the Canucks all-time leader in wins (212), shutouts (28) and goals against average (2.28). Luongo’s numbers this season are in line with his play since joining the Canucks: He currently boasts a 2.39 goals against average and .919 save percentage.
Cory Schneider is the Canucks’ backup, and in all likelihood, he is the best backup in the league—Rask and Halak being the other backups worthy of consideration.
Schneider’s development with the Canucks has been methodical to say the least; he played only 10 games with Vancouver before the 2010-11 season. But the patience the team showed with Schneider was well worth it and allowed the young goalie to develop his play with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose (Vancouver’s AHL affiliate prior to the current season).
In his first season as the Canucks’ backup, Schneider had a 2.23 goals against average and .929 save percentage last season. With Luongo, he shared the 2010-11 William Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed by a team. Schneider’s numbers this season, a 2.26 goals against average and a .928 save percentage, are indicative of his consistent play.
The only problem the Canucks face in having two outstanding goalies is the inevitable controversy that comes with choosing which one to start. There is a growing group of fans in Vancouver that feel that Schneider is the better, more consistent goalie, and should be the Canucks’ starter come the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is apparent that Schneider is a more technical goalie than Luongo, often appearing to make difficult saves look easy because of his flawless positioning. Luongo, on the other hand, uses his size and athleticism to bail him out at times. When that strategy works, he can look unbeatable. When it does not, he can look lost in his crease, often out of position on rebounds.
One difference between Luongo and Schneider that is worthy of mention is their play in shootouts. Luongo has always struggled in shootouts since they were introduced following the 2004-05 NHL lockout. This season, he seems more comfortable in the net in shootouts, but still has a winning percentage below .500 (4-6) and a save percentage of just .467.
Schneider has only played in two shootouts in his career, stopping all six shots he faced and winning both games. There is no doubt that Schneider is the better Canuck goalie in shootouts and there is also no doubt that shootout points matter, particularly when the Western Conference Standings are as close as they currently are, and particularly when the Canucks are in a dogfight with the Detroit Red Wings for first place in the conference.
The Red Wings’ home record (22-2-1) indicates just how important home ice is to Detroit and just how important it would be for the Canucks to have home ice if they were to face Detroit in the playoffs.
The biggest advantage that Luongo has over Schneider is his experience. This is Luongo’s 12th season in the NHL and 6th as a Canuck. He has played in game seven of a playoff series three different times as a Canuck, and also served as the backstop for the Canadian Olympic team that won the gold medal in 2010, a role he took over from a struggling Martin Brodeur.
To say, however, that Luongo’s play in big games has been entirely positive would be misleading. There are many fans that felt the Canadians won gold despite, not because of, Luongo. That criticism is overly harsh and not altogether accurate, but Luongo’s play in crucial games has left much to be desired.
He played terribly in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston last season, letting in three goals in a three-minute stretch in the first period. He was also sub-par in game seven, allowing three goals on just 20 shots.
As well as Luongo played in games one, two and four of the Stanley Cup Finals, he cost his team a shot at victory in game six and overall, showed the inconsistency that has plagued him in big games.
Schneider, for the most part, is unproven in big games. He started the game six loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Playoffs and looked solid in that game stopping the puck, but committed two terrible puck-handling errors that led to the Canucks’ loss.
Schneider also suffered cramps, which forced him to leave the game early. It was hardly the showing that Schneider was looking for in his first playoff start.
Schneider was the surprise starter in the biggest game of the Canucks’ season to date, a 4-3 win over the rival Bruins on January 7 of this year. A regular season game in the technical sense only, the win on the road over Boston was the most heated, intense game of the season for both the Bruins and Canucks, and probably for the NHL as a whole.
Schneider played tremendously well in that key game, a game which would make even the most seasoned goalies nervous.
I suspect that part of the rationale for starting Schneider in the Bruins game was to give him exposure to a playoff atmosphere. When the playoffs do roll around, it will almost certainly be Luongo that starts for the Canucks.
But if Luongo falters or suffers an injury, Schneider will be forced to step in. I can’t think of another backup that I would rather have pushed into that situation.