Four months ago, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo could not have seen it coming: an early season cross-continental contest with a swell of intrigue surrounding two goalies who never expected to be where they are now. Yet it was no surprise that Tuesday night's game in Vancouver played second banana to a subplot that took an unpredictable turn during the summer.
A cloud has hovered over the Canucks' crease since they fell one game short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. Luongo absorbed an inordinate amount of the blame for the loss, largely because of the soft goals that often mar his otherwise strong play -- but also because he surrendered 18 goals in Vancouver's four losses in the finals. With public opinion knocking him all over the ice, surely he was going to be the one who took his game out of town while Schneider emerged as the team's new number one. But after GM Mike Gillis dealt Schneider to New Jersey in June for a 2013 first-round draft choice, people scurried to the schedules to see when the pair would face each other. (This season's two meetings between the Canucks and Devils both take place in October, with Vancouver visiting New Jersey on the 24th.)
Before Tuesday night's game, the two ex-teammates stopped to chat briefly at center ice during warm-up. Luongo, who often playfully finds ways to say very little, insisted they talked about "the weather, our families, stuff like that." He added that he was "glad we don't have to talk about it in the future."
Schneider, who has yet to establish himself as someone who can handle a full season workload of 50 or 60 games, was never going to get the chance with Luongo around. Yet the two men formed a close friendship during what could have been an ugly time.
The trade gave them both an unexpected second wind. Schneider can finally become a starter, albeit after at least another season of sharing duties with Martin Brodeur, and Luongo gets another chance as the top goalie on a team that still has enough talent to be among the league's best.
The embattled 34-year-old veteran started very strongly on Tuesday, denying point-blank shots by Travis Zajac and Dainius in the first period. But even when he plays well, it seems he still has a moment or two that should be accompanied by creepy music from a horror film.
With New Jersey up 1-0 on a late first-period goal by Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias slid one of those impossibly angled bank shots off Luongo's pads and into the net, upping the Devils' lead to 2-0. And in the closing seconds of regulation, with the score tied 2-2, Marek Zdlicky's shot from the point through traffic barely slid past Luongo's stick side and wide of the net as the goalie scrambled to find the puck. But Luongo hung on, recording 21 saves in a 3-2 OT win that gave him his 350th career victory, good for an impressive 17th on the NHL's all-time list. (He may project as a future Hall of Famer, but he's still 319 victories short of Brodeur's all-time leading total.)
As for Schneider, though they razzed him after he allowed New Jersey's first goal, Vancouver fans did greet him with a standing ovation before the game. "I'd like to think that came from a place of love," he joked afterwards. Alas, his 30 saves were not quite enough in a losing cause as the Canucks tallied in the second period to tie the score before winning the game on Jason Garrison's screen shot at 2:18 of overtime.
Just four games into the season, the Devils have now blown 3-0 and 2-0 leads on the way to a 0-1-3 start. Granted, the club has been on a Western road trip for its last three games and is slowly heading back East with contests in Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa. But as a team that lost considerable firepower during the last two off-seasons, watching Zach Parise switch teams and Ilya Kovalchuk switch leagues, New Jersey can't afford to give up a lot of goals. Schneider's save percentage after the small sample size of two games is .887, 34th in the league. (Brodeur's .868 is 40th out of 47 goalies.)
In parts of five seasons as Luongo's backup in Vancouver, Schneider posted respectable marks of 55-27-9, .927 save pct. and 2.22 GAA. He now has a good opportunity in an organization that always seems to be able to do more with less, the opposite of what many see with the Canucks. U.S. Olympic Hockey Team GM David Poile named the Marblehead, Mass. native as one of the candidates for a spot on the squad that will play at the Sochi Winter Games in February, though Schneider will have to outplay some stiff competition -- L.A.'s Jonathan Quick, Ottawa's Craig Anderson, Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Detroit's Jimmy Howard -- in order to earn a spot.
Luongo, too, has good opportunity under new coach John Tortorella to fend off the ghosts from his past and prove that he can win a title rather than do less with more. "I enjoyed playing against him," Schneider said. "He's been through a lot. He deserves everything he gets."
Now that the collision of two friends with fresh starts is out of the way, each has six months to make the most of his new life.