MONTREAL – Roberto Luongo saw it as a fitting moment when he and backup Cory Schneider skated out together as co-third stars of the Vancouver Canucks 6-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche this week.
The two have weathered goaltending debates as Schneider took over the starting job when Luongo had a minor injury and played spectacularly, just as last season’s NHL Western Conference champions found their winning form again.
Luongo made the first 13 stops against the Avs on Tuesday night before he was forced to leave when struck in the throat by a shot from rookie Gabriel Landeskog 3:48 into the second period. Schneider finished it off and then joined Luongo, who wasn’t badly injured, for a joint bow to the crowd.
”It was nice to both contribute to a win together and at the same time pitch a shutout,” said Luongo.
”Best buddies, going out there for the star. Cute. It was really cute,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa added with a teasing smile.
It was only a second start for Luongo since he suffered an undisclosed injury on Nov. 13. Even though he missed only two games, the 32-year-old was kept on the bench as Schneider ran off five straight wins in which he allowed only four goals, posting two shutouts.
Luongo got back in when Schneider gave up three early goals in what would become a 6-5 loss at home to Nashville on Dec. 1. Luongo then started the next two games.
But the play of the 25-year-old Schneider prompted the recurring goaltending angst in Vancouver, where not all fans are sold on Luongo and the 12-year US$64 million contract he signed ahead of the 2009-10 season.
Schneider’s 2.02 goals-against average and .934 save percentage is well ahead of Luongo’s 2.82 average and .899 save percentage, although the starting goalie for Canada’s 2010 Olympic gold medallist team looks at last to be rounding into top form.
And coach Alain Vigneault said Luongo has not been usurped as the starter just yet.
”We have another young goaltender that obviously at some point is going to be a No. 1 in this league, but Roberto’s the No. 1 guy,” he said. ”It’s a simple situation.
”He was finding his rhythm, his groove, and then the kid went in and was phenomenal. So the kid kept playing. Now Roberto’s back and he’s playing. He’s our goaltender. There’s no controversy in our dressing room.”
Luongo said he had no problem watching from the bench as Schneider excelled, no matter how much it delighted his detractors.
”Like I’ve said many times, I’m not putting my personal agenda ahead of the team,” he said. ”I’m all about the Vancouver Canucks and winning hockey games. That’s all that matters
”Things are back to the way they were for now. I take it one day at a time. There’s no reason for me to feel frustrated. I’ve been in this league a long time. I’ve been through lots of things and I’m still playing hockey in the NHL, so it’s all good.”
Schneider has shown in his two seasons in Vancouver he probably is able to be an NHL starter, but with Luongo’s contract extending far into the future and averaging $5.33 per season, it’s unlikely the two will spend the next decade as teammates. How that will shake down in the future no one knows, but for now, Schneider said he’s content to return to backup duty.
”He fully had my back when I played a few games in a row,” he said of Luongo. ”He never said a bad word or anything.
”He waited his turn and now it looks like he’s back on track. We’re pulling for each other. People try to divide us and make it look like a rift, but we’re good friends. We’re teammates. We enjoy each other’s success and that’s all that matters.”
And after sharing a shutout, they underlined that sentiment by taking a post-game spin on the ice together.
”Maybe it was a way to tell everyone that it shouldn’t be so much a competition as a partnership, and that we both want the other to succeed,” added Schneider. ”A lot was made about this that was unnecessary.
”He worked hard when he wasn’t playing and now he is playing great. It was fun to go out together because that’s how we felt all along.”
Vigneault also confirmed Luongo would start the opening game of a five-game road trip Thursday night in his home town of Montreal, which raised an interesting coincidence.
In 2006, Luongo was hit on the throat by a Daniel Sedin shot in practice a day before a game in Montreal. He spent the night in an intensive care unit, but was released the next day in time to shut out the Canadiens.
A former Canadien, Chris Higgins, made the trip but wasnot slated to play due to an infected cut in a foot. Vigneault said Higgins’ injury is healing but he is not yet ready to skate.
The Canucks lost winger David Booth, likely for four to six weeks, after taking a knee on knee hit from Colorado’s Kevin Porter.
The injuries opened the door for call-up Bill Sweatt to play his first NHL game in Montreal.