VANCOUVER – Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault played a game of goalie roulette Saturday as his club prepared to face the Calgary Flames.
The wheel stopped on Roberto Luongo, who will make his first start Sunday since suffering an undisclosed upper-body injury on Nov. 13 against the New York Islanders.
“It was just what I thought was the right thing to do for the team,” said Vigneault of his decision.
Luongo returned to action during a rare relief appearance in Thursday’s 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators after Cory Schneider allowed three goals on five shots in the first period.
But prior to that game, Luongo had watched five straight games from the bench, after missing two with his brief injury, as backup Schneider posted five consecutive wins that included a pair of shutouts.
The stretch marked the first time in Luongo’s six-season tenure with the Canucks that he served as the backup during a prolonged span. The roles were reversed as Luongo faced questions about being inactive for long periods whereas his backups usually talk about the difficulty of sitting and watching him.
“Obviously, it’s something that you have to learn to deal with as far as, not necessarily being in the situation, but being asked about it every day,” said Luongo. “That’s what makes it harder than anything else.”
Goaltending is a constant topic of discussion in hockey-mad Vancouver, but Luongo has faced more criticism than usual this season, with many fans clamouring for second-year NHLer Schneider to become the permanent No. 1.
Luongo will attempt to regain the form that he showed before going down with his injury. After going through his usual October funk, he went 5-2 in November.
“I felt good,” said Luongo. “I felt that I was right where I wanted to be. I was getting on a bit of a roll there, so I’m hoping I can just pick up where I left off and pretty much win some hockey games.”
He’s hoping for a scenario similar to last season when he rebounded well after being sidelined with an injury against Toronto. In previous seasons, his few extended inactive stretches have resulted from injuries. But this time, he was able to work on his game with goaltending coach Roland Melanson.
“I was able to get some good practices in and spend some extra time working with Rollie,” said Luongo. “So we were definitely able to work on some things that, maybe, we don’t have a chance to when I’m playing. Hopefully those will help me out down the line here.”
In the meantime, the Vancouver goaltending debate continues almost unabated. But players and coaches alike insist that there is no goaltending controversy. Vigneault said Schneider earned the nod in so many games simply because he got on a roll after Luongo got hurt.
“I know it was probably a big controversy outside this locker-room …,” said Luongo. “But within these four walls, we were fine.”
Other teams, including Boston and Minnesota to name just two, have gone through similar goaltending debates this season as backups replaced starters temporarily. But the discussion has been much more heated in Vancouver.
Luongo, noting he can’t be worried about what others think, and Vigneault chalked up the situation to the challenge of competing in a Canadian market where hockey is usually on the front page of the sports section and the top item on radio and TV sports casts.
“You’re talking about different markets,” said Vigneault. “In Boston, you’ve got baseball, you’ve got football and then you have hockey. In Minnesota, I would probably say the same thing. In Vancouver, you’ve got hockey and then you’ve got the rest—passionate people, passionate fans, passionate media surrounding (the team).
“You understand that there’s a game on the ice and then there’s a game around the game, and that game around game helps to sell the game on the ice. I just roll with it. That’s what I try to go by, and that’s what I hope the players try to do.”
Meanwhile, the Canucks will make some other lineup changes against the struggling Flames. Winger Mason Raymond will play after having his scheduled comeback from fractured vertebrae suffered in the Stanley Cup final put on hold Thursday because of a paperwork snafu.
“I’m not coming back from a little injury here,” said Raymond. “I’m coming back from something that is pretty serious. So, yeah, it is tough. It’s disappointing. But these are things out of my control. I don’t know any other way to put it. So I have to just move on, put it past me, take it as another day of rest and get prepared for (Sunday).”
“I saw the paperwork (Friday),” said Vigneault, confirming Raymond will play.
Defenceman Sami Salo, recuperating from a groin injury, said he also expects to play. He practised for the first time Saturday since getting hurt Tuesday against Columbus. His situation will be evaluated again after Sunday’s morning skate before Vigneault confirms that he will play.
“The good thing was, it wasn’t too serious,” said Salo, 37, who has a long history of bizarre injuries but is on pace for a career-high 48 points.
Winger Aaron Volpatti learned Saturday he will be out for the season due to a torn labrum in his shoulder that will require surgery.
But the lineup change that fans will be watching most closely is the one in goal. Luongo said the Flames are a good opponent for him to get another start against. Vancouver and Calgary are longtime rivals, although the Canucks have posted a 9-0-2 record in the last 11 games between the teams.
“It always makes for some pretty good games against these guys,” said Luongo. “These are high-intensity matches and we don’t have any trouble getting up for these ones.”