We were all blissfully confident that we knew who was going to lead the Canucks out of the tunnel on Sunday night. Vancouver Coach Alain Vigneault was adamant in his response to a reporter’s question following his team’s game 5 loss: Roberto Luongo would start. Call it stubborn, call it stupid, call it Shirley. Whatever you call it, everyone was on the same page.
So when the reports from the United Center started blazing across the Twitterscape that Cory Schneider was leading the team on to the ice for warm-ups, heads spun around. What happened? Was Luongo hurt? Did Vigneault get overruled by the Canucks’ General Manager? Did Luongo chicken out? Or was this some calculated move on Vigneault’s part intended to make bloggers and the press look like idiots?
Given some time to think about the move to start Schneider instead of the poorly-performing Luongo, it was the desperate move of a coward who cares less about winning than he does about saving his job.
Let’s set this up. Luongo’s numbers during the progression of the first five games were tanking hard. His save percentage in game 5 had sunk to 0.667, that is before he was yanked for the second consecutive game. It was apparent that the Blackhawks had Luongo figured out: shoot high, and specifically high to the glove side. Anyone watching the tape could see this — and Vigneault had watched the tape.
But Vigneault is a proud, defiant man. He made a decision to go with Luongo in game 4, which turned out to be the wrong move; he made a decision to go with Luongo again in game 5, which ended up costing them the game; but he would be DAMNED if he was going to let some lowly reporter goad him into admitting his mistake publicly. So he stood firm with the decision that screwed his team over the last two games, and stared down the crowd in the briefing room as he announced that Luongo would start game 6.
Following the game 5 loss, Vigneault was pilloried in the press in his hometown, with his Luongo/game 6 proclamation drawing particular attention as evidence that the man had lost it. Some corners were merely questioning his wisdom, others were calling for his dismissal. But there was near-uniform agreement across the Vancouver talking heads: starting Luongo was dooming his team to failure.
So let’s “STOP IT RIGHT HERE!” Look at it from Vigneault’s perspective. On the surface it appears that he’s setting himself up for catastrophe. But once you dig a bit, you realize that there is one option that puts him in a no-lose situation even if his team tanks in game 6: start Cory Schneider. If the Canucks win, then he gets to take credit for the genius move at the last second; if they lose, he gets to say (privately), “See? I did what you wanted, and we still lost. If Luongo had started we could have won that game!” This is the path he ended up choosing.
But what was Vigneault’s motivation for doing that? Winning? No. This was the action of a man more concerned about what the press and his bosses think of him than he was with putting the right players on the ice. He calculated this move very carefully, and the driving force behind those calculations were the words written in newspapers and blogs and coming out of the mouths of sports pundits across southwestern British Columbia.
If he was making the calculation based on history and statistics, Roberto Luongo would not have seen one minute on the ice against the Blackhawks in this series. No, Coach Pouty-Face was only concerned with silencing his critics and trying to save his hide should the Canucks end up losing to the Blackhawks — and taking their President’s Trophy to the gold course in May.
Somebody who says one thing and does another is a liar. Somebody who cares more about keeping his job than he does about doing his job is a coward. And somebody who risks his team’s success to try to keep from looking bad is a liability. I’m just glad that Vigneault is Vancouver’s problem, and not Chicago’s.
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