Backup helps Canucks set a goal

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

It's not something you would expect to see on the agenda in Vancouver, a goaltending controversy.

Well, unless the talking point is whether Roberto Luongo actually has what it takes to lead a team to the Stanley Cup final.

It's a feel-good time on the Left Coast right now, you have to imagine, with the Canucks picked by more than a few people outside that time zone to win a Cup in this their 40th anniversary season.

It looks like they have the pieces.

After a slow start, the Canucks were sharp Sunday night in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Backup goaltender Cory Schneider started and won for the Canucks with a fine 32-save performance and got the start without Luongo being hurt or tired.

Calling it a controversy is a little strong.

But Schneider, after years of AHL seasoning, did look good.

The stats say you don't win the Stanley Cup with a goaltender who plays much more than 60 regular-season games, fuelling speculation in Vancouver about how many games Schneider should play to set up Luongo for post-season success.

OK, it's not a debate in any city where they have a goaltender who typically plays about 70 games a year (New Jersey, Manhattan).

But the Canucks probably are no different than any other team where the general manager wants his coach to play the backup goalie a little more. The coach's agenda -- that is to say, his job -- is usually oriented toward keeping said job and he is more likely to ride his horse, especially with the reputation of the backup yet to be determined.

Yet, it is interesting that during a relatively slow schedule (only nine games in October) and with hardly any action in the pre-season, Luongo has already given up the Canucks crease and Schneider got the job done.

The Canucks were 2-2-1 going into Tuesday night's game against the Minnesota Wild and will be in Chicago to face the Blackhawks Wednesday night. Both games are interesting, for different reasons.

The game between the Canucks and Wild puts the two top faceoff teams in the NHL against each other, the Wild being No. 1 (58.7%). The Canucks, who were seventh in faceoff-winning percentage last year, brought in Manny Malhotra to boost their work in the circle and he has delivered. He went 15-1 Sunday against Carolina and is first (67%) among players who have taken at least 80 faceoffs in the NHL going into Tuesday's games.

For a puck possession team such as the Canucks, that's an important statistic (not to mention it really helps the penalty killing), though success in the faceoff circle is no guarantee of playoff success. (The Washington Capitals had the best faceoff percentage in the playoffs last spring and were out in the first round. The Cup-champion Blackhawks were sixth and finalists Philadelphia Flyers were 11th.)

Wednesday night's game in Chicago is significant for the Canucks given that they lost to the 'Hawks in a playoff series last spring. For Vancouver, this type of game is a checkpoint.

Though the record is middling, the Canucks' other vital signs are better than fair -- ranked fifth in power play and 10th in penalty killing going into the game against the Wild.

For those in the East, the Canucks remain a bit of a mystery because they're on late, but they're fun to watch for us night owls who want a doubleheader every night. Their fans -- who take every call against them as a personal insult -- are fun to listen to, and in this the Canucks' 40th season, we get to revisit the 40 sweaters they've worn. It seems like 40, anyway.

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