By Phil Stacey
Finally, 1,617 days after he was first drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, 22-year-old Cory Schneider did what he has dreamed of since he was old enough to skate: play in a National Hockey League regular season game.
The Marbleheader made his NHL debut in goal for the Canucks Saturday night at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, stopping 28 of 31 shots as Vancouver fell to the host Flames, 3-1.
"I felt good," said Schneider after touching down with his team in Columbus, Ohio last night, where they'll face the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. "Obviously I would have rather gotten the win for our team. But for me, being my first game, I thought I did pretty well. (Calgary) had some good chances, and I thought I was able to keep my team in the game."
Schneider played so well, in fact, that he was awarded the game's No. 3 star in his first NHL contest. He did so before 19,289 fans at the Saddledome, and millions of fans across Canada and the U.S. watching on Hockey Night in Canada or the NHL Network.
Having been called up to Vancouver from the AHL's Manitoba Moose last weekend after Canucks star goaltender Roberto Luongo went down with an injury, Schneider had practiced with the big club all week but hadn't been told anything about actually playing in a game. He watched Curtis Sanford start home games against Detroit (a win) and Calgary (a loss) before head coach Alain Vigneault informed him during Saturday's morning skate in Calgary that he'd be starting that night.
"I knew I couldn't change what got me to this point; I just had to be more alert of who was around me and make those adjustments," said the 6-foot-2 redhead. "Being around the team for a whole week and practicing with them helped, too; I felt like I was up to speed on the shooters and aware of their tendencies, especially when they're in tight.
"Before the game, Curtis and a few of the coaches came up and told me to have fun, to enjoy this experience. That's what I tried to do."
The host Flames, knowing they were facing a rookie keeper making his first start, came out flying and tested Schneider early and often. He made his first save just 18 seconds into the game and wound up stopping all 11 blasts that came his way in the period, including three off the stick of captain Jarome Iginla.
Despite his team mounting little in the way of offense, Schneider held his ground deep into the second period before the hosts finally beat him on a power play with 39 seconds to go.
"They got the puck back to the point and (defenseman Dion) Phaneuf got a quick, hard, high shot off," said Schneider. "I was trying to look through all those bodies out front, but the puck hit (Daymond) Langkow out front and shot back to the other side, and I couldn't get there. That was one of the biggest challenges: fighting through those screens and realizing you can't just stop the first shot."
The second goal, a David Moss wrist shot was one Schneider wishes he could have had back.
"He came down the off-wing on a 2-on-1 and I read the shot, trying to take that away," he said. "So I slid over to that side and anticipated (Moss) going either up high or over my pads. Instead, his shot went hard and right along the ice, and he put it under my trailing (left) leg. It's definitely not a goal I wanted to give up; 2-0 at that point was a backbreaker."
Although Vancouver's Kyle Wellwood would slice his team's deficit to one goal five minutes later, the Flames salted the game away when Matthew Lombardi, off a beautiful pass from Iginla, one-timed a shot past Schneider with 1:22 to play.
"That play was kind of helter-skelter," Schneider admitted. "There was a turnover up ice and I had to look for the extra attacker and scurry back into the net. Iginla came down (Schneider's right side of the ice), and I had to respect his shot. But he made a great play selling the shot, then dished it off just as (Vancouver defenseman Sami) Salo's stick moved out of the passing lane just for an instant, and it went right to Lombardi.
"That was a great play by a great playmaker — one that I hope not to bite on so quickly in the future."
Without question, the game was a learning experience for the former Phillips Andover and Boston College star. Still, he was happy with his own play, feeling he was able to show his coaches, Vancouver staff and his teammates that he's capable of playing in the NHL and won't be a liability between the pipes.
"Cory I thought played solid and kept us in the game," Vigneault told The Vancouver Sun after the game.
Vancouver is currently on a road trip out East, facing the Blue Jackets tonight before playing back-to-back games in Detroit and Minneapolis against the Red Wings and the Wild, respectively on Thursday and Friday. Whether or not he'll play in any of those games is anyone's guess, but Schneider said he'll be ready whenever the call comes.
"I answered a few questions about myself, as far as you don't know if you can do it until you actually go out and do it," Schneider said, reflecting back on his NHL debut. "Now I know that I can and got a taste of what it's like; it's a fun environment to be in. Once you get that taste, you don't ever want to give it up."