In what may be interpreted as a preview of the Vancouver Canucks' long-term goaltending plans, Cory Schneider was named the starter for Wednesday night's fourth game of the Western Conference quarter-finals, a series led by the hometown (and upset-hungry) Los Angeles Kings.
In his own mind, coach Alain Vigneault said he'd decided on his starter even before Tuesday's practice, which also featured the return of Daniel Sedin. But Sedin's presence on the ice – and the possibility of his actually returning to play after missing a month because of a concussion – made the goaltending story a footnote, rather than leaving it front-and-centre, where it would normally be.
Sedin, incidentally, said Wednesday that, barring a setback, he expects to play in Game 4.
Vigneault met with Schneider and goaltender Roberto Luongo Tuesday night to inform them of his decision.
Schneider, who described Luongo as "very competitive and still a friend" said he was "excited" by the prospect of playing, "looking forward to it, focused – things that normally happen when you're tapped to play. It's going to be a fun game tonight. It's going to be energetic and we're going to give everything we have because we need to have this game."
Ultimately, the Canucks will need to make an organizational decision about their net-minding direction over the summer, and the decision to opt for the youthful Schneider over the veteran Luongo may be a hint to how they're leaning. For contractual reasons, it is unlikely that they can hold onto both players, meaning the choices are either to retain Luongo, who turned 33 earlier this month and has been their starter for the past six years, or turn the job over to Schneider, 26, who has been patiently apprenticing in the organization for the past four.
The fact that the Canucks have turned to Schneider in back-to-back games suggests they believe he gives them the best chance of winning – and in an organization hungry for the Stanley Cup, that is a telling development.
Luongo, normally the most gregarious of players, was not available for comment following the morning skate.
"We've said this all along, both of our goalies are tremendous and whoever is going to play, we know we'll have a good chance to win," said Daniel Sedin, assessing the team's goaltending dilemma.
As for Sedin's own status, he suggested that Tuesday's full-out practice would help him tonight. As to how he will be deployed, Sedin isn't sure.
"We'll see how AV uses me. Once you're out there, you want to play as much as you can. That's always been my case."
Nor does he expect the Kings to back off just because of his concussion history.
"Well why should they?" said Sedin. "I wouldn't be back if I wasn't 100 per cent. They expect the same from me – to be 100 per cent."
So there is tons of intrigue in tonight's match-up, something not normally associated with the fourth game of a series that stands 3-0. Ultimately, the Canucks' long-term goaltending decision will come down to dollars; to Luongo's wishes (since he has a no-trade) and the ability of GM Mike Gillis to trade a contract with 10 years to run, if he should try to do so.
Luongo has just completed the second year of a 12-year, $64-million contract, with an annual cap hit of $5.333 million that isn't as bad as it looks upon first blush. The contract has six years left at $6.714-million in actual dollars out, and then it falls off the cliff after that in the final four ($3.382-million; $1.61-million; two final years at $1-million).
It is a cap circumventing contract of the first order, narrowly within the limits of what the league allows.
Schneider's two-year, $1.8-million contract, with a $900,000 annual charge expires at the end of the season. He's due for a raise and as a restricted free agent, could even an offer sheet or two this season.
Organizationally, Schneider has the bigger long-term value just because of his age and the fact that he wouldn't be as costly Luongo, at least not on the next contract. Or you wouldn't think.
And all of this obscures the most important fact today – that Vancouver's goaltending has been good no matter who has played thus far in the series. More importantly, they need to jump-start the sputtering offence (three goals in four games, zero on the power play). However they manage to do that will determine if there's a fifth game in the series this coming Sunday at the Rogers Arena.
"We had a great day (Monday) with the team, as good as you can have when you're down 3-0," said team captain Henrik Sedin. "We know where we are. We're going to focus on (Wednesday night's game). If we get one win, we bring it back to Vancouver and see what happens."
Someone asked Henrik if being that far down in the series, permitted them to relax going into the fourth game.
"I don't think there's ever a relaxing time in playoffs," answered Henrik. "You would rather be up 3-0 than down 3-0, that's how it is. Like you said, there's not a lot of teams that have been able to come back (just three in NHL history). If there's a team that I've been on that might be capable, it's this team. We have a great team in here. We've shown in the past two years that we can string some wins together."
DISSECTING THE BIG HIT: Even before the controversial Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa in the Chicago Blackhawks - Phoenix Coyotes series, plenty of the talk here continued to focus on the hard, but clean hit that Kings captain Dustin Brown put on Henrik Sedin early in the second period of what was a tame almost listless game up to that point. Brown's hit perked up the crowd and the Kings' bench, and even if there was an altercation off the hit – Alex Burrows unlikely tangling with the Kings' Anze Kopitar – most everyone agreed that this was the sort of hit that belonged in the game.
Vigneault raised the only minor objection. He said: "I didn't like the position Henrik was in (head turned away from the contact, so he couldn't brace himself or see it coming). Other than that, it was a good hit."
Perhaps the most surprising development of all: Brown didn't actually have to fight someone, which is an increasingly common occurrence in the NHL these days. Every hit, legitimate or not, tends to provoke some sort of response from the opposition, often of the kneejerk variety. So why didn't it happen this time? "I think they understand what playoff hockey's about," theorized Brown, "and that there are going to be hits that maybe change the momentum of the game. Sometimes, they're going to be clean and sometimes, they're going to be on your best player. That's one of those things where, I got an opportunity to finish my check on one of their key players and I finished it. It became a focal point of how the game played out."
Can Brown ever remember a time when you didn't have to throw down the gloves after delivering a clean hit?
He smiled, before answering: "It's hit-and-miss with that. Sometimes, it's hard to say. When you hit a star player, it's almost like you have to (be prepared to fight).
"I've had hits on star players and guys challenged me and said, 'if you don't want to go, we're just going to get you,' that type of thing.
"But in playoff hockey, you make a clean hit and guys - it's not like they don't forget about it, but they play on because there's bigger things at stake than revenge."
MORE TORRES REACTION: Torres played for the Canucks last season when his hit on Blackhawks' defenceman Brent Seabrook ignited a sleepy Chicago team and helped them get back in the series. Daniel Sedin, coming off that concussion, said he didn't see the Torres hit enough to comment on it, but he reiterated a view held by others, that the primary issue was "a lack of respect. That's the main issue."
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE: The Kings were preparing for the game, as if Daniel Sedin were in the line-up, thinking that if Sedin was healthy enough to fly down and to practice with the team, there was a good chance he could play. Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi understood that Sedin's presence could give the Canucks a boost, psychologically and practically, but other than being aware of him out there, they would stick to their smothering defensive style and not change much.
"I don't know how many goals he had this year, I'm sure he had 35 or 40," said Scuderi. "You could pretty much pencil him in for that every year. He's an extremely productive player. The twins work extremely well together. They play the puck to space to each other, a lot of blind passes, where they know each other's going to be, that type of thing. It's not going to change what we do, but it's certainly something to keep an eye on."
Daniel Sedin actually finished with 30 goals in 72 games this season, after scoring 41 in 82 last year and leading the overall NHL scoring race with 104 points.
THE LINEUP: The Kings will get Brad Richardson back after he missed the first three games of the series recovering from an emergency appendectomy, bumping rookie Andrei Loktionov to the sidelines. The Kings remain without Kyle Clifford, who is still not skating after a hit to the head from Byron Bitz in the opening game that resulted in a two-game suspension to the Canucks' forward. Bitz is eligible to return tonight.