Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
It was a move of desperation or a daring stroke of genius.
Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to bench All-Star goaltender and perennial Blackhawks foil Roberto Luongo in favor of Cory Schneider for Game 6 on Sunday night at the United Center created a stir when it was announced less than an hour before the game. But it was up for debate whether that was good news or bad for the Blackhawks.
Schneider was 16-4-2 in 25 games this season, but he never had started a Stanley Cup playoff game. In fact, he never had even played in the postseason until he relieved the battered Luongo in Games 3 and 4.
But for the Hawks, facing Luongo on tilt might have been a more inviting option. Luongo is a four-time All-Star, a Vezina Trophy finalist this season after leading the NHL in victories (38) and finishing second in goals-against average (2.11). But after getting shut out by Luongo in Game 1, the Hawks scored 15 goals against him on 98 shots in the next four games.
‘‘A gut feeling,’’ Vigneault said.
Regardless of the explanation, the benching was tacit acknowledgment the Hawks had again “gotten into Luongo’s head,” which had to unnerve the faltering Canucks, who already were on their heels after seeing a 3-0 series lead cut to 3-2 with back-to-back 7-2 and 5-0 losses in Games 3
‘It’s a team game’
‘‘You know what? It’s a team game,’’ Luongo said when asked if he was disappointed in not starting. ‘‘Me and Schneids were the best goaltending duo in the NHL this year. He’s just as good as I am. It doesn’t matter who [starts]. I put the team ahead of myself. I wanted to win this game just as much as any other game.’’
Schneider neither won nor lost the game. He faced a 5-on-3 power-play for 1:52 in the first period without incident and allowed three goals on 20 shots, including a penalty shot.
As fate would have it, it came down to Luongo. Schneider suffered cramps when he did the splits trying to defend Michael Frolik’s penalty shot with 17:29 left in third period and was unable to continue. That brought on Luongo, who had come off the bench in only two of his 370 games since coming to Vancouver in a trade five seasons ago.
The United Center crowd, of course, gave Luongo the business, derisively chanting his name almost as soon as he entered the game.
But the Hawks surprisingly took it easy on their playoff whipping boy. Luongo faced just two shots the rest of the third period and stopped them both.
‘‘It’s not something I’m used to,’’ Luongo said of coming off the bench. ‘‘But once I got in there, the boys really turned it up defensively and didn’t give up much for the rest of the period and gave me a chance to get [into the game].’’
Smith’s rebound gets through
The Blackhawks did a better job of testing Luongo in overtime, but he was looking more and more like vintage Roberto Luongo with each save.
Where was Dustin Byfuglien when you needed him?
Luongo finally was solved 15:30 into overtime when he stopped a hard shot by Niklas Hjalmarsson from the blue line but fell forward to the ice, allowing Ben Smith to score easily on the rebound.
By the time he faced the media after the game, Luongo was ready to move on. Why he didn’t start wasn’t even an issue.
‘‘That’s up to the coaching staff,’’ he said. ‘‘But as a professional athlete, you’re dealt all sorts of situations during your career and you learn to deal with them. I came in and fought hard. It’s obviously disappointing to lose, but our attention focuses right away on Game 7.’’