LOS ANGELES – With a single stick save, Cory Schneider helped the Vancouver Canucks stay alive and, in the process, might have relegated the highest-paid goalie in the league to the bench for whatever remains of the Canucks' season – if not longer.
With 14:37 to play in the third period and the Canucks clinging to a 2-1 lead in Game 4 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series, Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown stole the puck, raced into the open ice toward Schneider and was tripped from behind. The referee immediately pointed toward center ice, signaling a penalty shot.
Here it was, the Kings' hottest player against a goalie who until a few days ago was sitting on the bench waiting to be called upon to save the Canucks from elimination. Schneider had been brilliant in Game 3, stopping all but one shot, but that one shot was enough to beat him and put Vancouver in an unimaginable 3-0 series hole.
So when Brown lined up for the penalty shot, the playoff existence of a team favored to win the Stanley Cup hung in the balance. Stop the shot and the Canucks would have hope; miss it and the Kings would have tied the score with the sweep very much in their crosshairs.
Brown grabbed the puck, moseyed toward the net, shifted to his left, then to his right and ripped a shot aimed between Schneider's legs. When he did, the crowd of 18,000 strong inside Staples Center roared, assuming it had gone in, except that the scoreboard still read 2-1 as the puck trickled harmlessly off to Schneider's right.
One Henrik Sedin goal later, off an assist from his brother Daniel – more on his return later – and Vancouver had a 3-1 win to finally get on the board in this best-of-seven series.
"Brown's been their hottest player and I know he's got some good moves in the shootout," Schneider explained. "He made a real nice move, I was able to hold off on the shot fake … and he threw it back 5-hole and fortunately I had my stick there. All those goalie drills where you slide and have your stick protecting the 5-hole finally came in handy."
It would be, to this point, the second-most significant moment of the Canucks' postseason, the first coming three days ago when coach Alain Vigneault made the decision to bench Roberto Luongo in favor of Schneider. To his credit, Vigneault made the call to bench a player making $6.7 million in favor of one pulling down a relatively paltry $900,000.
Forty-three saves on 44 shots Wednesday went a long way in proving Vigneault's decision correct, especially after Vancouver came out dragging in the first period when the Kings peppered 13 shots on goal, one of which found the net.
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"Schneider came up real big for us tonight," Vigneault said. "He gave us a chance in the first period when our guys were a little bit tight. … He gave us a chance to get our legs and find our hands and after that I thought we played pretty good."
Maybe the Canucks will come all the way back to win the series, maybe they won't. Either way they'll be left with a decision next season: Schneider or Luongo?
The bargain shopper would choose Schneider. So might the savvy one. Right now Schneider is every bit as good as Luongo – he had a better save percentage during the regular season, doesn't carry the baggage of 10 years remaining on a $64 million contract and is seven years younger.
"I'm always trying to prove myself," Schneider said. "Every time I get a chance to play is to prove that you can. You never want to get embarrassed and show that you can't play. I'm just enjoying it. I enjoy the playoffs; it's the time of year that's the most fun and it's fun to be able to play."
Tell that to Daniel Sedin. Until Wednesday, he hadn't appeared in a game since suffering a concussion March 21. Without their leading goal scorer, the Canucks' explosive offense had turned pedestrian, and without his twin brother on his line, Henrik Sedin wasn't himself.
As the losses mounted, Daniel Sedin didn't know if the headaches would go away in time for him to rejoin his teammates before they were eliminated. He'd stayed in Vancouver for Game 3, but he started feeling better Monday and notified the Canucks that he wanted to join them in Los Angeles. He practiced Tuesday, felt good Wednesday, decided to play just prior to the game and assisted on his brother's clinching goal late in the third period.
"You've been having those headaches, and you definitely don't want them back again," Daniel Sedin said. "That first period was key for me. I took a few hits. I was obviously hesitant, of course. But after that I was fine. I have no worries."
As the series shifts back to Vancouver, the Canucks return with a bigger sliver of hope than they could have expected. They'll be on their home ice; they've got Daniel Sedin in the lineup, which means Henrik will be better, too; and they're riding a hot goaltender to match L.A.'s Jonathan Quick.
Since falling behind 3-0, the Canucks have been fast to point out that a year ago the Chicago Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit to force a Game 7 against, well, them. It's an odd motivator considering it means bringing up their own shortcomings, plus the fact that while the Blackhawks rallied, they ultimately lost that seventh game.
Well, whatever keeps them going, but their best hope right now is a back-up goalie who is making a strong bid at being No. 1.
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