VANCOUVER – Roberto Luongo’s supposedly final season with the Vancouver Canucks took another intriguing twist Wednesday.
Luongo drew the start in goal for the Canucks in the opening game of their first-round playoff series with the San Jose Sharks. He got the call after Cory Schneider did not recover in time from an undisclosed injury.
Luongo pulled off another of many surprises this season — most not of his doing — after fans and media wondered whether he had played his last game for the Canucks in Vancouver just before the regular season concluded.
“It’s been a fun ride, and it’s only going to get better from here on in,” said Luongo of this season. “Obviously, my focus is to be a goalie on this team and make sure that we put our best effort on the ice — starting with myself.”
Luongo was expected to be traded in the off-season after Schneider displaced him as Vancouver’s No. 1 goaltender in last spring’s opening-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Coach Alain Vigneault made it clear that Schneider would get the nod in the playoffs by starting him in most games as the post-season approached.
But Schneider was injured in the last week of the regular season against Chicago after helping the Canucks secure their fifth consecutive Northwest Division title and home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.
Luongo, who played the final two regular-season games — losses against Anaheim and Edmonton —felt badly for Schneider, a close friend. But the former No. 1 was also glad to get the start as the post-season began.
“Things happen, and you try to figure out why, and sometimes you don’t understand them,” said Luongo. “But at the end of the day, I mean, we’re all playing hockey and we’re all playing in the NHL, and I’m excited about the opportunity to play in a playoff game and, hopefully, get a (series) win and move on.”
Rookie Joe Cannata, 23, who was called up recently from the minors and had yet to play an NHL game, was assigned to serve as Luongo’s backup — even though Schneider took part in the morning skate.
“He’s just not healthy enough right now,” said Vigneault.
The coach was confident that the 34-year-old Luongo would play well for however long he is needed.
“I don’t think, for our group, having Roberto in goal is a concern,” said Vigneault. “He’s a pretty good goalie. He’s been through a lot of battles.”
Luongo helped the Canucks reach the 2011 Stanley Cup final and backstopped Canada to the 2010 Olympic gold medal on the Canucks’ home ice after taking over the starting duties from the struggling Martin Brodeur.
The start against the Sharks was another adversity test for Luongo, who has become more mellow and introspective this season as he realizes his days with the Canucks are supposedly numbered. But he felt prepared for the assignment, based on the final two regular-season games that he played and other difficult situations that he has dealt with this season and in the past.
“I’m better at facing adversity,” said Luongo. “Once you’ve been through it many times, you find it easier to pick yourself up and overcome it and move on.”
As expected, Antti Niemi got the start in goal for the Sharks after a stellar regular season in which he shared the NHL lead in wins (24) with Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom. Sharks coach Todd McLellan said that questions surrounding the Canucks’ starting goaltender were not of concern to his club.
“It’s a much bigger story in Vancouver than it is in the Sharks’ locker-room,” said McLellan.
Sharks captain Joe Thornton, who played with Luongo in the 2010 and 2006 Olympics, did not think Schneider’s injury posed an extremely difficult situation for the Canucks.
“When you get a choice of Luongo or Schneider, I think you are pretty fortunate,” said Thornton. “Lou is a world class goalie — and so is Cory.”
Notes: Cannata drew Vancouver’s backup assignment even though more experienced farmhand Eddie Lack was called up with other minor-leaguers on Monday as the Canucks expanded their roster. Lack, 25, missed most of the season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves due to a hip injury that required surgery in late January. … Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler missed his club’s morning skate for unexplained reasons, but was slated to play.