VANCOUVER – Roberto Luongo was nowhere to be seen publicly Thursday, but he was still the talk of the town as the Vancouver Canucks hoped to build on the momentum of their Game 4 playoff win over the Los Angeles Kings.
Speculation on Luongo’s future with the Canucks was rampant after the veteran goaltender was benched for the second straight game in favour of backup Cory Schneider, who made 43 saves in a 3-1 win in L.A. on Wednesday night.
With the victory, the Canucks staved off elimination, reducing their series deficit to 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final series, which resumes Sunday in Vancouver.
Associate coach Rick Bowness said head coach Alain Vigneault and his staff wrestled with the decision to go with Schneider in the potential season-ending game.
“That’s probably the most difficult decision Alain’s had to make in our tenure here,” Bowness said during a media availability session after the club travelled home from Los Angeles. “Anyways, that’s what it was.”
Vigneault switched goaltenders after Luongo had played well in the first two games in an effort to give the Canucks some momentum. It did not pay off in Game 3 as the Canucks lost 1-0, but the Vigneault stuck with Schneider and the Cancucks were rewarded.
“You have no idea how incredibly difficult that was because of the amount of respect we have for Roberto, not only as a goalie and as a professional, but as a man,” Bowness said.
Schneider, 26, has allowed just two goals in the past two games and sports a 1.02 goals-against average and .969 save percentage. Luongo, 33, has allowed seven goals in two games for a 3.59 average and .891 save percentage.
The switch has sparked considerable chatter because Schneider is due to become a restricted free agent in the summer. He will likely merit a considerable raise in salary and could receive offer sheets from other clubs. The Canucks would have the ability to match any offer.
Luongo still has a decade to go on a 12-year contract, translating to a US$5.33-million salary cap hit that would be difficult, but workable, for other clubs.
Daniel Sedin insisted the Canucks are comfortable with either Schneider or Luongo in goal. He praised Luongo for handling the benching with class while maintaining a strong desire for the Canucks to win.
“We trust both goaltenders tremendously,” he said. “(Schneider) was great both in Game 3 and Game 4. So whoever’s in net, we’re going to play the same way in front of him. We trust they’re going to get the job done.”
And the task remains extremely difficult. The Canucks are trying to join the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers as the only teams that have come back from 3-0 series deficits to win.
The Kings remain in control of the series, said both Bowness and Sedin.
“Even though they lost the game, they’re in pretty,” Bowness said.
The Canucks are feeling much better about their chances now that Sedin has returned from a concussion that kept him out of 12 games, including the first three of this series. He recorded an assist Wednesday and reignited Vancouver’s dormant power play as the Canucks scored twice on three man-advantage opportunities while rallying from a 1-0 first-period deficit.
They had been blanked on 14 power-play chances until then, and had also surrendered two short-handed goals.
Bowness said the power play gave the Canucks the “jump-start” they needed, and bestowed considerable praise on Sedin.
But the modest winger refused to be anointed as the club’s saviour, insisting the Canucks started to turn things around when he was not there.
“If we play (Game 5) like we did Game 3, I like our chances,” Sedin said.
He also liked the way his head and the rest of his body felt in his first game back. The biggest issue, he said, was getting his timing back, which proved difficult in the first period.
“My head was fine, and I didn’t really worry too much about that,” he said. “Once I got the first hit out of the way, that was no question to me.”
Sedin knew he was ready to play after skating on his own for three hours Sunday in Vancouver. He feels lucky that he only missed a dozen games after the likes of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Steen of St. Louis missed considerably more.
“Every time you wake up, your head hurts and it’s tough,” Sedin said. “I talked to Backstrom and Steen. They were out a lot more than I was. So that must have been really tough. I was kind of fortunate in that way.”
Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith was suspended five games for the March 21 elbow to the head that caused Sedin’s involuntary hiatus. Sedin said players, not suspensions, can make the biggest difference when it comes to reducing head shots.
He said there was a difference between the intentional head shots and the controversial hit former teammate Raffi Torres delivered to Blackhawks’ star Marian Hossa. Torres was suspended indefinitely for the hit.
“There’s a difference between those kinds of hits,” Sedin said. “That’s more of a hockey hit. I know he left his feet, and he’s probably going to get suspended for that. It’s the other stuff that you want to get rid of, the intention to injure or (when) you do stuff that’s not part of hockey.
“It’s a different game now than it was before the rule changes. It’s a faster game and stuff (is) going to happen. I still think it’s up to the players. The suspension is not going to solve the problem.”
Bowness, who played in the NHL and minors between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, said the game is far more violent now than it was then. The biggest difference is that players take head shots now whereas they used to fight more frequently.
“It’s different violence now than in the early ’70s,” said Bowness. “Do I like it? Absolutely not. I hate intentional head shots. I always have.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly quoted Daniel Sedin as saying “I know he left his feet, but it’s funny that he got suspended for it” in relation to Torres’ suspension.