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Big-game starts raising Schneider's profile

Cory Schneider hasn't unseated Roberto Luongo as the Canucks' No. 1 goalie, but he's been getting some high-profile starts.

Wednesday, 01.02.2012 / 6:57 PM / Features
By Kevin Woodley
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Big-game starts raising Schneider\'s profile
Cory Schneider hasn\'t unseated Roberto Luongo as the Canucks\' No. 1 goaltender, but he\'s been getting some high-profile starts and performing in them, showcasing his value for the future.

Vancouver Canucks backup Cory Schneider has already done a lot this season to prove to the hockey world that he's ready for a No. 1 job in the NHL.

The Canucks seem intent on showing the rest of the League he's a big-game goalie, too.

Of the three starts Schneider has made over the last month, two were against the Canucks' biggest rivals, and the other came at the tail end of back-to-back road games against a Tampa Bay team badly in need of puck-stopping help.

That middle start against the Lightning sparked plenty of talk about his future as trade bait for a Canucks team that already has Roberto Luongo under contract another 10 seasons after this one.

But the other two -- first a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the hated Bruins and then going against top rival Chicago Tuesday – may be more telling about Vancouver's plans for Schneider this season.

"Quality over quantity, right?" Schneider said after making 37 saves and being named the game's First Star in a 3-2 win over archrival Chicago on Tuesday.

And rarely is quality goaltending more important than during the playoffs.

Schneider, who turns 26 this season and becomes a restricted free agent this summer, may yet have a long-term future elsewhere. But he didn't totally dismiss the possibility his immediate future might include a postseason appearance for the Canucks -- and not just if Luongo struggles or gets hurt.

"Possibly," Schneider said when asked if a playoff start is the next step. "We have all the faith in Lu, but if he were to run out of gas or needs a mental break or something like that, that's the benefit of having two guys. Traditional logic says you go with one guy throughout playoffs but having options is always good."

Schneider is giving them a good one again this season. After playing 25 games as a rookie last year while helping the Canucks win the Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals against, he's already appeared in 20 this season. He is sixth in the NHL with a .928 save percentage, 10th with a 2.28 goals-against average, and sports an 11-5-0 record that also includes a tough road win in San Jose.

"I just read into it that coach trusts both of us," Schneider said. "He has faith in me to play these games and he has confidence I can win them. To me that helps a lot and it shows that it doesn't matter whether it's Lu or me in net, the team plays the same way and hopefully has the same results. I think fortunately they look at me as more of a complement to Lu, rather than just a fill in."

For coach Alain Vigneault, starts against top teams are part of Schneider's evolution.

"For his personal growth that's very important," Vigneault said before Schneider stole Tuesday's win with an often spectacular 15-save second period. "Roberto has played in all the pressure situations a goaltender can play -- playoffs, (Olympics) gold-medal game -- he understands and he has been through some real pressure moments. In Cory we've got a really young guy we believe has got tremendous potential and, just as with our younger players, we are letting him grow by putting him in different circumstances. I think that's part of Cory's growth and part of our reasoning behind certain decisions."

Vigneault wasn't willing to go as far as the playoffs, other than talking about how important Schneider is to making sure Luongo gets to them well-rested, and pointing out the Canucks and Bruins were careful not to overwork their starting goalies last season before embarking on postseason runs to the Final.

For the Canucks, that included a surprise start for Schneider in Game 6 of the first round against Chicago after Luongo struggled.

Schneider played well in a tough spot, but committed a couple puck-handling turnovers that led to goals, and was forced to leave after cramping up following a penalty shot goal that tied the game for the Blackhawks. The remainder of his playoff action consisted of mopping up when Luongo struggled in Boston, but given the tough starts after long breaks this season, some wonder if Luongo's leash will be shorter this postseason.

"They've maintained they want to keep me around and that they like me on this team, and I figure they might use me at some point in that capacity so I have to be ready," said Schneider, who also hoped the workload -- and tough starts -- pick up down the stretch. "Otherwise what's the point of having two guys? If they didn't believe in me or trust me they could just play Lu the rest of the way and every game in the playoffs, but last year we saw extra rest benefitted him."

If so, the Canucks clearly have faith in Schneider. And it's growing.

"The players in this room feel we can win against any team with him," defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "He's one of the mentally strongest guys on the team."

Strong enough to win tough starts against top teams, twice in hostile environments, after prolonged breaks this season.

Maybe strong enough to do it again -- if needed -- in the playoffs.