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Thompson: 'Hawks Feasting On Shaky Goaltending

By Brad Thompson--

CHICAGO (WSCR) The wild Western Conference quarterfinal series between Chicago and Vancouver has storylines aplenty, the most significant one deals with the Canucks' goaltending.

The 'Hawks have roared back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7 and have a chance to become only the fourth team in NHL history to win a seven-game series after trailing 3-0. Chicago somehow managed to win three games in a row after seemingly being toast after a Game 3 loss, but it'll all be for not if they don't win on Tuesday.

The big question following the 'Hawks Game 6 victory was, who will be in between the pipes for the Canucks in Game 7? On Monday, Blackhawks fans got the answer. The Vancouver Canucks tweeted that Alain Vigneault will start Roberto Luongo. Vigneault might not have had a choice if reserve goalie Cory Schneider is unable to play due to injury. Regardless, it bodes well for Chicago.

Luongo, a Vezina Trophy finalist, was pulled in Game 4 and 5 after yielding 10 goals on 40 shots. After Game 5, Vigneault said that he was sticking with Luongo. Then on Sunday, in a surprise move, rookie Cory Schneider came out for warm-ups and made his first career playoff start in Game 6. Schneider left with 2:31 gone in the third period with a leg injury, after giving up a game-tying goal to Michael Frolik on a penalty shot.

Insert Luongo.

He made it out of the third period unscathed, mostly due to the Canucks stingy defense, but in overtime, Luongo gave up the game-winning goal to Ben Smith off a rebound from a Niklas Hjalmarsson shot.

Tying the series 3-3 means the Hawks have all the momentum heading into Game 7, but the Canucks' most concerning problem is goaltending. Schneider could barely put pressure on his leg as he was being helped off the ice on Sunday after being injured, yet Vancouver is reporting he suffered only leg cramps. His status is officially day-to-day.

At this point, Vancouver can't be too excited about either of their goaltending options. It's no secret that Luongo has struggled against Chicago. The Hawks eliminated the Canucks in each of the last two playoffs in part because of Luongo's poor performance. Even though he shut out the Hawks in Game 1 of this series, it appears the Hawks have his number. If this weren't the case, Vigneault wouldn't have pulled him in Game 4 and 5 or benched him in Game 6. A goalie's confidence is a fragile thing and Chicago has rattled Luongo.

Still Vigneault is going with the veteran. Luongo has played a Game 7 before. He's also been in the league 11 seasons and is making $10 million this year. His strong play was one reason why Vancouver finished with the best record during the regular season, but if he can't overcome his playoff struggles, his career will be marred by an inability to win in the playoffs. Luongo's career playoff record is 20-20.

Following Game 6, Luongo downplayed the tough decision facing Vigneault for Game 7. "Me and Schneids are the best goaltending duo in the NHL this year," Luongo said. "He's just as good as I am and it doesn't matter who's in net." While Luongo played the "team player" card publicly, it's hard to believe his confidence hasn't been shaken after not getting the start in Game 6.

Even considering Luongo's troubles, Vigneault would really be gambling by going with the inexperienced Schneider in the series finale. Schneider is talented and has been decent in the series, allowing five goals on 41 shots, but he's a rookie and his health is in question.

By benching Luongo in Game 6, Vigneault showed his lack of confidence in Luongo. Now, to avoid being on the wrong side of history, Vigneault needs Luongo to be at his best.

When defending his decision to start Schneider on Sunday, Vigneault said, "The gut told me it was the right thing to do." Without knowing whether Schneider is healthy enough to play means we don't know if Vigneault is trusting his gut or not in Game 7. Either way – advantage Blackhawks.

Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.

Jeff Pearl
Brad Thompson

Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad's blogs here.

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