By Steve Lichtenstein
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By his own admission, Devils goalie Cory Schneider has not been at the top of his game this season.
The downturn has been unexpected, since Schneider was coming off a career year. He earned roster spots at both last season’s NHL All-Star Game and on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey in September after finishing fourth in the league in goals-against average (2.15) and fifth in save percentage (.924).
There were nights last season where Schneider stood on his head to keep his team in games, willing a feeble offensive group to flirt around the playoff bubble until a knee injury in early March sidelined him for a month.
Fully recovered, the 30-year-old Schneider rebounded from an erratic, though meaningless, preseason to stop 94 percent of the shots he faced in his seven October starts.
Yet something was still amiss.
Schneider’s numbers have since plummeted to the bottom tier of the league’s netminders. Nothing too egregious was getting past him, but pucks were finding holes, rebounds would bounce fortuitously to opponents’ sticks, and then there were just too many times he would just get plain beaten.
Going into Tuesday’s home tilt against his former employers from Vancouver, Schneider had a 3.12 GAA, which ranks 27th out of 29 qualifiers, along with the second-lowest save percentage (.891) in 11 games, dating to Nov. 1. More recently, he has just one win in his last six starts (1-3-2), surrendering at least three goals in each game.
The oddity, or maybe it’s more than a coincidence, is that around the same period when Schneider began to fight the puck, the Devils’ scoring proficiency caught fire. Since Oct. 25, the Devils have averaged 2.8 goals per game over their last 20 games, good enough for sixth in the NHL. That’s nearly .6 goals per game better than their dead-last ranking last season.
Maybe it’s wrong of us to compare apples to oranges, because the Devils are certainly not the same team they were a year ago. They’re pushing the pace with defensemen up on the attack and pinching far more often, which can lead to scoring chances in the other direction if the opponent forces a turnover.
Half of New Jersey’s usual six-man backline group is new to the team this season, which has resulted in numerous communication failures in the early going, such as botched clearances and coverage breakdowns in front of the net. With Adam Larsson dealt to Edmonton last offseason for left wing Taylor Hall, the Devils lack a true shutdown partner for captain Andy Greene, who hasn’t had a minus season since 2010-11, but is minus-4 to date.
The reality is that these would be pretty lame excuses for Schneider. More time owning the puck in the offensive zone should have been on Schneider’s Christmas wish list. And the Devils’ defense corps outside of the Greene/Larsson duo — especially the third pair that was a nightly horror show — was even less competent than this group in the defensive end. Schneider has yet to face more than 36 shots in any game this season, while backup Keith Kinkaid has been bombarded with over 40 shots in each of his last three outings, stopping 92.4 percent.
To his credit, Schneider recently told the media that he “needs to be one save better” and that it’s on him to improve.
He knows the Devils aren’t going anywhere without him in peak form. They surrendered a first-round draft pick to the Canucks in 2013 because they believed Schneider was a suitable heir for the legendary Martin Brodeur.
Until this season, he has been.
However, we’re not at the point where calls for Schneider’s benching should be made. Kinkaid can be good for spot starts, but he didn’t exactly shine in his audition for lead actor when Schneider went down last season.
No, coach John Hynes is correct to continue to rely on Schneider, who improved his record to 3-1-2 versus his former club with the Devils’ 3-2 victory at Prudential Center on Tuesday night.
I’d like to say that this performance, which featured 22 saves, was a sign that Schneider turned a corner, but that would just be wishful thinking.
I wouldn’t deem either of the Sedin twins’ goals unstoppable. Daniel found Schneider’s five-hole with a slap shot from the top of the left faceoff circle towards the tail end of a Canucks five-on-three power play early in the second period, and Henrik closed the scoring in the third period by roofing a shot from a hard angle at the right of the cage.
Were they “bad goals?” Not really, but the Canucks are also a relatively bad team. With the Devils facing a bear of a slate the rest of this month, Schneider is running short on time to recreate the impenetrable force field he put up last season.
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