VANCOUVER – Six seasons ago, Roberto Luongo’s attitude would have been different.
But now, the veteran goaltender is attempting to take his new backup role in stride as the Vancouver Canucks prepare to host their biggest game of the 2011-12 NHL season.
Cory Schneider is expected to start in goal for the Canucks on Sunday in Game 5 of their Western Conference quarter-final series with the Los Angeles Kings while Luongo watches from the bench for the third straight game.
“I’m much better at (dealing with being replaced) now than when I got here,” Luongo said.
The Canucks, who finished first overall in the NHL for the second straight season, remain in a do-or-die situation against the Kings, the club that had to settle for the eighth and final playoff position in the West. Schneider made 43 saves as he backstopped Vancouver to a 3-1 victory Wednesday, but the underdog Kings lead the series by the same count.
Luongo is vowing not to be a distraction to the team, and will prepare as though he were starting in case he gets the call to go between the pipes at some point.
“I’m a competitor,” said Luongo, who backstopped Canada to a 2010 Olympic gold medal on the same Rogers Arena ice where Sunday’s game will be played.
“Obviously, you guys all know that, and it’s tough (not to start). But at the same time, this is about the team, and I’m not going to put myself ahead of the team. We’re in this together.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said his decision to go with Schneider in Game 4 was not cut-and-dried, but he had to do what he felt was best for the team that day.
The decision to replace Luongo with Schneider has prompted considerable speculation about the nominal No. 1 netminder’s future with the club. Luongo has a decade to go on his contract and Schneider is due to become a restricted free agent this summer.
But the goaltenders and Vigneault said now is not the time to be debating future crease occupants.
“Roberto’s future is on Sunday,” said Vigneault. “We’ve got to focus on Sunday. He’s no different than a quarterback who’s a hit (to another QB) away from going back in the game or Schneids taking a puck somewhere, etc. He’s got to focus on Sunday—like the rest of us.”
The Kings scored seven goals on Luongo in the first two games, while another goal was scored into an empty net, en route to identical 4-2 victories in the first two games. Schneider has allowed just two goals while posting a loss and a win in the third and fourth games.
The 26-year-old Marblehead, Mass., native, who is in his second full season with the Canucks after three seasons in the minors, downplayed his elevation to playoff No. 1, noting he has just one post-season win on his record and Luongo posted 15 last spring as the Canucks reached the Stanley Cup final.
Still, Schneider relishes the chance to start with the season on the line.
“There’s no doubt that the regular season’s nice, but everyone sort of proves their mettle in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s where you can make your reputation and earn a spot on the team.”
Schneider started the sixth game of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup final in Boston, but said he has been better prepared for playoff duty this time. He appeared in a total of 33 games in the regular season after playing sparingly most of last season. He has played in the American Hockey League final as well as two NCAA finals with Boston College during his university days.
Those experiences have helped him prepare for dealing with the magnitude of Sunday’s contest.
“Pressure is a little bit of a self-manifest,” Schneider said. “It’s what you make of it.”
The Canucks have enough pressure to deal with anyway. They are trying to become just the fourth team—after the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers—to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win a series.
Because of two concerts at Rogers Arena, the Canucks have had to wait longer than usual to get another crack at the Kings. The series is in the midst of a three-day break between games.
L.A. coach Darryl Sutter would prefer to have the usual one-day break. But Vigneault welcomed the extra time off.
“I see it in a different way,” he said. “We’ve got a player that came back (from a concussion) for Game 4, Daniel Sedin, and this is going to give him a little bit more time to get his game where it can get to. He’s an elite player and, unfortunately, we didn’t have him at the start of this series.”
The Canucks are looking for more good things from Sedin after he recorded an assist on his twin brother Henrik’s power-play goal and was on the ice for all three of Vancouver’s markers Wednesday. Daniel Sedin’s return helped revive the Canucks’ previously dormant power play as it went two-for-three after being blanked 14 times and allowing two short-handed goals in the first three games.
The coach again called for more difference-makers. He singled out Mason Raymond, who worked out on the fourth line Friday, as a player who must be better. Raymond has been a second or first-line winger most of the season, but Vigneault said he does not deserve to be on a top unit right now.
“We need some contributions from different people,” Vigneault said. “But we also need some guys to be big-time players for us.”
Notes: The NHL confirmed an 8 p.m. ET start time for Sunday’s game. … Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa did not practise Friday as he was given another “maintenance day” from Vigneault. … Rookie winger Zack Kassian skated with extra players instead of the main group of regulars.