By Phil Stacey
---- — When a hurler wants to pitch in a big baseball game, he uses three simple words to get his point across: Gimme the ball.
There may not be any similar phrasing a hockey goaltender can use when he’s eager to get back on the ice and play — but if there is one, no doubt Cory Schneider will use it today.
The 27-year-old from Marblehead is eager to get the starting assignment between the pipes tonight when his team, the Vancouver Canucks, opens the Stanley Cup playoffs at home against their quarterfinal opponents, the San Jose Sharks. Schneider missed the last two games of the regular season with what the team (in hockey’s typically crypt fashion) referred to as a ‘lower body injury’, but said he’s ready to answer the bell if called tonight.
“I’m feeling good,” Schneider said last night from Vancouver. “I’m not sure if Alain (Vigneault, the Canucks’ head coach) has announced whether me or Louie (fellow Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo) is going to play, but I’m ready.”
Schneider practiced with his Canucks teammates for the second straight day yesterday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver and said he’s ready to assume the starter’s job for the during of the playoffs.
“Hopefully this is my year to really make my mark in the playoffs,” he said.
Having recently gotten engaged to his girlfriend Jill Connors, Schneider will head into the playoffs having gone 17-9-4 during the shortened NHL regular season. His goals-against average of 2.11, save percentage of .927 and five shutouts were all among the best in the NHL, but the former Boston College star feels he’s just now playing his best hockey of the season after a so-so start.
It’s been an interesting season to say the least — and not just because of the NHL lockout and the fact that the season didn’t begin until mid-January. Schneider was anointed as Vancouver’s No. 1 keeper while incumbent Roberto Luongo was expected to be traded. But a deal for Luongo never materialized, and the two goalies had to once again work in tandem; the keeper that was hot would get the majority of the starts until he hit a dry spell, then Vigneault would turn to his other netminder.
“For me, I didn’t play as well as I hoped to start the year,” said Schneider, who played a handful of games for HC Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss League until the NHL lockout was resolved. “But I feel I’m getting better and towards the place I want to be. I felt great in the second half of the regular season, and they rewarded me by playing me a lot down the stretch.”
Schneider had a front row seat to Vancouver’s run to the Stanley Cup final two years ago against the Bruins, even relieving Luongo in Games 4 and 6 in Boston while also starting his team’s first round Game 6 matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s one thing to go through a long playoff run ... and it’s another thing to actually do it.
“I learned a lot from seeing what goes into making it that far,” said the big redhead. “I think our team as a group has learned and matured, too; we went to the final two years ago, then felt we could have gone deep last year but lost (in the first round).
“I’m not sure what people outside the (locker) room think about us, but frankly we don’t care. We know when we’re healthy and playing well, we can beat anyone in this league.”
Well aware of the Sharks and their slew of offensive talent, Schneider said it’s important to know their tendencies, penchant for creativity and the fact that, like the Canucks, they’d like to erase years of playoff disappointments this spring. But he’s more concerned about himself and his teammates and what they’re capable of doing.
“We want to use our speed, get the puck up ice and create scoring chances, and with our top three centers (Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy), I think we match up with anybody up the middle,” said Schneider. “Strength in the playoffs is built from the middle out, so we want to dictate the pace and put pressure on other teams.
“For me, I just want to play the best that I can and hopefully help get us to where we want to be.”