- After riding backup goalies to playoff berths, New Jersey and Washington have gone back to previously entrenched starters in their first-round series.
NEWARK — Drenched by dancing red lights and the roar of a delirious home crowd, Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider awaited their curtain call. They were standing along the entrance tunnel at Prudential Center, moments after the Devils’ first postseason victory in almost six years, a 5-2 triumph over Tampa Bay. Before their names were announced as the stars of Game 3, Hall atop the leaderboard with three points and Schneider right behind with 34 saves, Hall wrapped an arm around his goalie’s sweaty shoulders and whispered into Schneider’s ear.
“I’m really happy for you,” he said.
The sentiment was shared throughout this downtown arena—code name: The Rock—where chants of CO-RY! CO-RY! echoed prior to the national anthem. They crescendoed midway through the first period when Schneider stopped Lightning winger Cory Conacher on a breakaway, and then again during the third period when a mad scramble near the crease left Schneider cramped but unscathed, a 2-2 tie still intact. They resumed amid the postgame din, as Schneider took one last twirl and Hall beamed from the tunnel with pride.
It had been a long road leading to that moment for Schneider, whose last win occurred right after Christmas break. Since then he had dropped a dozen straight decisions, posting an .863 save percentage and zero appearances in which he allowed fewer than three goals, all while dealing with a groin injury that sidelined him for all of February. The starting job was then bequeathed to Keith Kincaid, the emoji-tweeting, Chipotle-eating backup who shepherded the Devils into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the second Eastern Conference wild card. Meanwhile Schneider waited, confident that his turn would come again soon.
“Ideally you’d like to be in the position where you’re a leader of the team and a big part of it,” he said. “Sometimes things happen. It doesn’t change how you feel about yourself or the way you go about your business. I really tried to stay positive and upbeat. I knew that if we [reached the postseason], that I was probably going to have to do something at some point. I tried to stay ready and prepared. Fortunately it’s paid off so far.”
As linemates Blake Coleman and Brian Boyle told each other on the bench, “This is the Cory we know.” Calm in his movements, collected under pressure, steady against the NHL’s deadliest offensive attack after relieving Kincaid after Tampa Bay struck five times in Game 2, then again when he was called upon for Game 3. Both Lightning goals Monday night were scored on power plays. Otherwise the 32-year-old Schneider was perfect, right until two empty-netters from Coleman and Ben Lovejoy shifted the tide of what had been a 2-0 series. “He was phenomenal,” Boyle said. “He was great. We need that. We’ve got two really good goalies. He’s been an unbelievable pro working at his game, getting back and in a big spot tonight he delivered for us.”
Twenty-four hours later and 500-plus miles away, a similarly redemptive story unfolded in the visiting crease at Columbus’s Nationwide Arena. Like Schneider, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was an entrenched starter whose usual role had been ceded following a sluggish stretch that included six straight losses in February, including a 5-1 defeat against those same Blue Jackets in which he allowed four goals on 16 shots and got yanked before first intermission. And like Schneider, Holtby entered off the bench during Game 2, received the nod for Game 3, and thrived.
“He probably hasn’t had his best stuff like we were normally seeing, Vezina [Trophy]-type seasons, but if you win the Vezina you’re capable of being a pretty good goalie,” defenseman John Carlson told reporters. “There was no drop in confidence from us. He’s a battler, and that’s what he did.”
Holtby had some help throughout Washington’s 3-2 double-OT win—the Blue Jackets struck at least four posts and crossbars, including a zinger from sharpshooter Artemi Panarin with 2:13 remaining in the first overtime—but he finished with 33 saves on 35 shots. Given that his .932 career playoff save percentage ranks second all-time, there was little debate over whether Holtby could hang under the pressurized circumstances. But backup Philipp Grubauer was phenomenal down the stretch, hardly a human seat-warmer until Holtby got right.
“Just the same goal I have every year,” Holtby told reporters later. “Keep getting better and be realistic about the situation and keep working.”
Schneider can relate. He received even less work than Holtby down the stretch thanks to the groin injury, but was rock-solid when it mattered at the Rock. A brief silence fell over the building when he gingerly skated to the bench after that third-period chaos; Kincaid even disappeared into the tunnel, either to clear space for team trainers or start stretching in case he was called upon. Instead, Schneider calmly slugged from a water bottle, flipped down his mask and returned to raucous applause.
“That felt good,” said Schneider, who will start again at home for Wednesday’s pivotal Game 4. “It was good to deliver and come up with a big game. Hopefully I can continue feeling that way and give them something else to cheer about.”