Benching Roberto Luongo was a panic move

Roberto Luongo skates off the ice following Game 6, a contest in which he started on the bench and ended face down on the ice after losing in overtime.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – Somewhere along the line, it became accepted practice among coaches to trust a repository of chewed-up food and guzzled-down drinks smoothed by gurgling acid. The gut is a tried-and-true staple of coaching decisions, and when it works, it’s easy to forget its use in lieu of an actual decision-making organ: the brain.

Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said he trusted his gut when he sat down a gold medal-winning, 12-year-contract-signing, Vezina Trophy-finalist goaltender in a pivotal playoff game for a rookie. It was obvious, by proxy, that Vigneault did not trust his brain, for any person not furiously depressing the panic button would’ve stuck with Roberto Luongo(notes) and let him work out of a funk that had lasted all of two games.

But no. Luongo sat. Cory Schneider(notes) started. He cramped up and left Game 6 of the Canucks’ first-round playoff battle with the Chicago Blackhawks. And in came Luongo, benchwarmer, to yield the game-losing goal in overtime of the Blackhawks’ 4-3 victory, their third straight in a series that heads back to Canada for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Tuesday.

As a companion for what’s sure to be a bestseller in Vancouver, his upcoming “How to Blow a 3-0 Lead Against An 8 Seed,” Vigneault now can offer “How to Emasculate Your Goalie In One Fell Swoop.” No matter how poorly Luongo played against the Blackhawks in Games 4 and 5 – and in allowing 10 goals on 40 shots, brutal might not adequately describe it – benching him was no solution.

A creative coach drums up ways to thieve stolen momentum. A desperate one banishes his goalie.

Alain Vigneault went with his gut in starting Cory Schneider ahead of Luongo. The Canucks coach should've trusted his brain instead.
(Rich Lam/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut,” Vigneault said. “Sometimes the book is overrated. Gut told me it was the right thing to do.”

For Vigneault to so readily trust his gut at this stage of the postseason personifies the noose the Blackhawks have wrapped around his brain. It was one thing to lose to them in the second round after winning the Northwest Division in 2009. It was another to bow out to them another time in the second round as division champions in 2010. The indignity of a third, with the best regular-season record in the NHL and in the first round no less, only would cement Vigneault’s reputation as a postseason failure, incapable of winning with the Sedin twins and Luongo in their primes.

Sure, Luongo’s lapses reveal themselves like forehead warts: out of position here, soft goal there and his ultimate downfall Sunday at the jam-packed United Center, a rebound in front of the crease. With 4:30 left in the first overtime period, rookie Ben Smith(notes) buried the remnants of a Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) shot from the point that sent Luongo to the ice splayed out, and anybody with a can of spray paint could’ve traced Luongo’s silhouette for an appropriate end to a night when his coach went on a killing rampage.

Gone was the trust in Luongo – and his trust, too. Even as he played good soldier after the game – asked if he felt his coaches still believed in him, Luongo said, “Of course. Why not?” – only an automaton wouldn’t be hurt by the benching. Luongo, 32, was in goal for the Olympic gold-medal final 14 months ago. Now he was playing second fiddle to a rookie. One who was good – 16-4-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, just a shade above Luongo’s 2.11 – but a rookie nonetheless.

Luongo’s perception suffered as well. In the Canucks’ dressing room, his teammates tried to shrug off the change.

“It doesn’t matter,” defenseman Kevin Bieksa(notes) said.

Schneider fared well, but left the game after Michael Frolik's penalty-shot goal in the third period.
(Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

He reconsidered.

“I don’t know what it feels like,” Bieksa said. “I’m sure it’s tough. What do you think it would be? It’s not easy.”

When Vigneault told his team Sunday afternoon, he didn’t need to utter the most obvious words: The goalie who led us to the top seed, who beat the Blackhawks in the first three games, who at times carried us – in this game of important games, well, he’s just not good enough.

Vigneault said he consulted with the Canucks’ management and coaching staff Friday on the trip to Chicago before deciding Saturday to play Schneider. That nobody from the front office bothered to remind Vigneault that Luongo is just finishing the first year of a 12-year, $64 million deal amounts to administrative malpractice. If this is the first step of a Luongo-Vancouver divorce – and if Vigneault wasn’t cheating, he certainly got his flirt on – his cruise missile to Luongo’s value hit its target.

More than anything, the fashion in which he muddied Luongo’s immediate future provided the greatest detriment. Vigneault put himself in the truest of no-wins. If Schneider played well – and he was decent in yielding three goals before he retired to the dressing room to take two bags of IV fluid – Luongo would have to ride the bench again until Schneider struggled. And if he didn’t play well, Luongo would return for Game 7 curious why he wasn’t the first choice to close out the series in Chicago.

“As a professional athlete, you’re dealt all kinds of situations in your career and you learn to deal with them,” Luongo said. “I could’ve came in and not given (anything), but I came in and fought hard and obviously was disappointed to lose.”

Only he did. He had gone nearly 33 scoreless minutes before Smith’s goal. He stayed face down on the ice for 10 seconds, lifted himself, pushed toward the bench, glided through the boards and into the locker area, where he had watched the first two periods. Perhaps the only lonelier place than between the pipes is inside an empty dressing room on the business end of a benching.

Where this leaves Luongo was of little concern to Vigneault following the loss. He said Schneider could play Tuesday. Schneider said the same. Vigneault wouldn’t commit to a goalie. He knew his word was no good anyway after insisting following Game 5 that Luongo would remain the Canucks’ starter.

Luongo's final, flailing moments in Game 6 won't help his confidence heading into Game 7 – assuming he gets the start.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The world of problems to which Vigneault added Sunday gets no smaller in Game 7. Though a No. 8 seed, the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks want to become the second team in as many years and the fourth in NHL history to erase a 3-0 series deficit. They rode goalie Corey Crawford’s(notes) 35 saves Sunday, and they’re eager to lay a similar beating on Vancouver as they did in Game 5.

“Sometimes it takes all your lifelines to win a million dollars,” Bieksa said. “That’s where we’re at right now. We’ve used our three lifelines.”

Vigneault asked the audience of his decision-making compatriots. They steered him down a faulty path. Left with a 50:50 question, he went with the wrong guy. And his phone call oughta be to 911, because the Canucks are in deep trouble.

His salvation is in the one player he enfeebled Sunday. The Canucks have lived and died with Roberto Luongo, and they’re going to live and die with him, and if Vigneault’s gut tells him otherwise, maybe there will be a hidden lifeline somewhere to remind him of a simple edict.

Let the brain do the thinking.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 25, 2011