(AP) — It seemed a near certainty Roberto Luongo had played his final game in a Vancouver Canucks sweater after Cory Schneider supplanted him as the team’s No. 1 goaltender during last season’s playoffs.
Now, he’s proving to be an asset.
Luongo will make his third straight start Friday night as Vancouver hosts the rival Chicago Blackhawks, who have earned 13 of a possible 14 points to start the season.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis has made no secret he’s actively shopping Luongo, who entered 2013 as Schneider’s backup after posting his fewest wins (31) since 2003-04. Luongo also gave way to Schneider after dropping the first two games of a first-round playoff loss to eighth-seeded Los Angeles.
Schneider started four of the team’s first five games this year, posting a 3.13 goals-against average and being relieved by Luongo in an opening-night loss to Anaheim.
Luongo has been solid, though, going 1-0-2 with a 1.61 GAA after making 24 saves in Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over Colorado.
“You just take it for what it is,” Luongo said. “I’m playing hockey in the NHL. I consider myself lucky.”
Coach Alain Vigneault has decided to ride out Luongo’s hot streak, making clear that having two capable goaltenders is only a positive for the Canucks (3-2-2).
“When I call on one to go in our net, I know he’s going to give us the best chance to win and the other one is going to support him,” Vigneault said.
Luongo has played a key role in the constantly developing rivalry against Chicago and is 2-0-1 with a 1.60 GAA in his last three starts in the series, including the postseason.
Last season ended a streak of three consecutive playoff meetings, of which the Blackhawks won two before Vancouver’s seven-game victory after nearly blowing a 3-0 series lead in 2011.
Things may get heated in this matchup. The last one, a 2-1 overtime win for the Blackhawks on March 21, led to Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith’s five-game suspension for a hit that caused Daniel Sedin to miss nine regular-season and three postseason games with a concussion.
“We expect a playoff-type (atmosphere). It’s an important game for everybody,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “When we go there the building is alive and it will be an exciting game.”
The Blackhawks (6-0-1) set a franchise record by winning their first six games before falling 3-2 in a shootout to Minnesota on Wednesday to begin a six-game road trip.
Captain Jonathan Toews, who scored his fourth goal, said the hot start will only benefit them in a shortened season.
“We’re on a long road trip right now and we can’t look too far ahead,” Toews said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot and we’ve got to make it even tougher for teams to catch us.”
One reason for Chicago’s success has been a penalty-killing unit that has snuffed out 26 of opponents’ 27 chances with the man advantage.
The Blackhawks have killed off all 19 short-handed situations on the road, while Vancouver has converted just 1 of 15 power-play chances over its last three games.
“It’s been huge for us but, No. 1, we would like to stay out of the box a little bit more,” Toews said. “If we happen to be going to the box, then we’re confident if the game is on the line we can get the job done.”
Corey Crawford has been solid in net with a 1.79 GAA after making 23 saves Wednesday, though it’s unclear if he or backup Ray Emery will get the nod Friday with Chicago playing the next night in Calgary.
Vancouver has won five of the last seven home meetings, including the playoffs.
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