Alain Vigneault made a gut decision to bench goalie Roberto Luongo, but it wasn’t his choice that made a third consecutive loss difficult to stomach for his Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.
The Canucks played their best hockey since the first period of the opening-round series, yet found themselves watching the Chicago Blackhawks celebrate a 4-3 win when rookie Ben Smith backhanded in a rebound 15 minutes and 30 seconds into overtime.
Smith’s extra-period heroics was a dramatic ending to a game that had everything. There was goalie controversy, a critical and successful penalty shot, another contentious head shot, a benching, a goalie switch during the game, an injury to veteran defenceman Sami Salo.
The end result? The Blackhawks are one victory away from becoming the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to win a series after losing the first three games.
First, Vigneault’s gutsy decision to bench his Vezina Trophy-candidate goalie Roberto Luongo to 25-year-old Cory Schneider. Even though he announced following the Canucks' loss in Game 5 on Thursday that Luongo would remain his starter after being yanked in back-to-back games, the Canucks coach had a change of heart on the flight to Chicago on Friday.
He conferred with his coaching staff and management and then informed Luongo and Schneider of the decision on Saturday afternoon after practice at the United Center. The rest of the team found out on Sunday morning.
“Going by the book is overrated,” Vigneault said. “Sometimes you have to go with your gut.”
Luongo took the decision well. He even pulled Schneider aside for a pep talk.
“Me and Schneids are the best goaltender tandem in the NHL,” Luongo said. “It doesn’t matter who plays. We’re both good.”
Schneider was decent enough in his first NHL start, but after the Canucks built a 2-1 lead following the first period it was his giveaway to Chicago’s Patrick Kane that led to a tying goal from David Bolland late in the second period.
Still, Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa put his club ahead by a goal for a third time early in the third period. But then Blackhawks forward Michael Frolik beat Schneider on a penalty shot and he had to leave the game after his right leg cramped up.
“I seized up after that. It was real frustrating,” said Schneider, who was first bothered in the second period by a cramp, a condition that also happened to him in an AHL playoff game.
Schneider required fluids intravenously when he was pulled, but is expected to recover in time if Vigneault chooses to play his backup in the deciding game. “Would you believe me if I told you?” joked Vigneault, when asked which goalie would get the call for Game 7.
Luongo played the final 17½ minutes of regulation and overtime. He stopped 12 of 13 shots, but was shaky catching the puck and covering up, a criticism that has followed him throughout his entire career.
But Luongo’s play was inconsequential because the Canucks dominated the game after Schneider departed. They directed 85 shots at the Chicago net. Thirty-five hit the net, the Blackhawks blocked 31 and they missed the net another 19 times, including a post that forward Chris Higgins hit in the third period. Otherwise, Blackhawks rookie goaltender Corey Crawford was at his best.
In overtime, Bieksa was the victim of a shoulder-to-head hit from Chicago forward Bryan Bickell that stunned the Canucks defenceman.
“It’s playoff hockey,” said Bieksa, when asked if it was a clean hit afterwards.
The Canucks lost the services of Salo midway through the first period with an undisclosed injury. Vigneault refused to shed any light on the defenceman’s situation.
The Canucks coach also benched left wing Raffi Torres after he took a goalkeeper interference penalty midway through the second period.
With the Stanley Cup champions riding high after three wins, it may appear difficult to stop them eliminating the Canucks for a third playoffs in a row. But the Canucks have plenty to work with from Game 6.
Their penalty killing was spot on as it snuffed out a 1:43 long 5-on-3 disadvantage in the second period. Their work ethic returned and so did their strong positional play in the neutral zone.
But after all the twists and turns that have transpired in this series, it’s anybody’s gut feeling as to which team will be advancing on Tuesday.
“Sometimes you need all your lifelines to win a million dollars and we‘re going to need all of ours to win now,” Bieksa said.