VANCOUVER – Goaltender Roberto Luongo will start in net for the Vancouver Canucks in tomorrow night’s Game 7 of their NHL playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
That was the definitive word Monday from coach Alain Vigneault who had trouble maintaining a poker face in front of the media.
“We’ve discussed all the decisions but I can tell you right now, Louie’s playing (Tuesday),” Vigneault said.
Of course, he also said Luongo would start Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss in Chicago, but rookie Cory Schneider got his first playoff start instead.
It wasn’t Schneider’s first appearance in the playoffs.
He mopped up for Luongo in lopsided losses in Games 4 and 5 as Chicago rallied in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final after Vancouver won the first three games.
“Positive,” Vigneault said with a smile and a chuckle when asked if he was sure Luongo would play one of the most critical games in the franchise’s 40-year history. “Would I lie to you?”
Schneider, who left Sunday’s game after cramping up while failing to prevent Michael Frolik from scoring on a penalty shot, will be the backup, Vigneault said.
“I’m not kidding. Does this look like the face of a kidder?”
General Manager Mike Gillis said Sunday’s move wasn’t made known until game time because people without proper credentials entered the Canucks’ dressing room in Chicago.
“We just kept it quiet to keep the pressure off Cory and not have people snooping around,” said Gillis who collaborated with the coaches on the goaltending decisions.
Luongo and other players interviewed before Vigneault’s announcement spoke as though Tuesday’s goaltending decision had yet to be made.
“I’ll wait to hear if I get the nod,” said Luongo who was torched for 10 goals on 40 shots in his last two starts. “I’m getting ready as if I’m playing.”
At one point he briefly left a media scrum when he became flustered by questions about his status.
“I don’t even know guys. I don’t know whether he’s (Vigneault) told me or not. What am I supposed to say?”
Luongo, 32 and completing the first of a 12-year, $64 million contract, has won big games before for the Canucks.
He backstopped a 4-1 Game 7 victory over the Dallas Stars in the 2007 conference quarter-final.
He’ll be skating on the same ice where he captured the 2010 Winter Olympics hockey gold medal in a tension-packed 3-2 Canada overtime victory over the United States.
“Just go out and enjoy the moment,” was Luongo’s approach to Tuesday’s game in this city with over-the-top Stanley Cup expectations.
“It’s a high-pressure situation and the nerves will be there definitely but we can’t forget to enjoy it because those are fun games to be part of.”
Vigneault said Luongo was told Sunday he’d play Game 1 of the next series.
“And if there was a Game 7 (against the Blackhawks) he’d play Game 7,” said Vigneault. “Roberto’s handled the big stage before; he’ll be fine.”
Gillis said there was nothing unusual about the move to start Schneider, the red-head from Marblehead, Mass.
The rookie had 10 games of NHL experience prior to this season but teamed with Luongo to capture the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the club allowing the fewest regular-season goals.
“We’ve done this all year long,” Gillis said of Schneider who fashioned a 16-4-2 record and a .929 save percentage as the Canucks tried to conserve Luongo’s energy for the playoffs.
“We’ve got the best goaltending tandem in the league,” Gillis said. “We’ve given Roberto rest all year long at different points.”
In addition to the Jennings award, Luongo received his second nomination as one of three finalists for the Vezina trophy awarded to the NHL’s best goalie.
But he’s had plenty of playoff trouble with the Blackhawks, losing six-game series in each of the last two conference semifinals after the Canucks took the lead in both.
Luongo was in tears after the 2009 loss and now doesn’t talk to the media during the playoffs after the game-day skate.
This season his 2.11 goals-against average was the best of his career and came with only 60 starts, down from an average of 74 the previous four years.
Feisty forward Alex Burrows said Luongo would have wanted the Game 6 start.
“He’s a competitor. he wants to play well, he wants to do well but at the same time if he gets the call (Tuesday) night, I’m sure he’s going to be really ready and he’s going to play a really good game,” Burrows said.
Henrik Sedin said Cup-winning teams have gone with two goalies in the past.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in both goalies and that’s a good thing for us,” the Canuck captain said.
“I think that you’ll see in the past that teams that have won they’ve switched goalies so that’s nothing to worry about if you have two great goalies. It’s not a big thing.”
NOTES: Luongo has compiled a 3.45 GAA in six playoff games … his save percentage slipped to a lukewarm .888 after he made 32 saves blanking the Hawks in the first game of the series.