Schneider played in only five games in the last five weeks of the season and compiled a save percentage of .850. Not surprisingly, Devils Coach John Hynes made Kinkaid the starter for the first-round series against the top-seeded Lightning. But then Kinkaid gave up nine goals on 46 shots.
Hynes replaced Kinkaid with Schneider midway through a 5-3 loss in Game 2 on Saturday in Tampa that put the Devils in an 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series. Schneider stopped all 10 shots he faced, and Hynes played a hunch Monday for Game 3.
Schneider was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in June 2013 to eventually replace Martin Brodeur, who now has a statue in the plaza outside Prudential Center. The Devils got Schneider just for enormous games like Monday’s.
“I was looking forward to it,” he said after the game. “These are fun games. This is the exciting time of year. There’s no real time to overthink it or to be nervous. We’ve had a fun year all year, and everything’s kind of reset for the playoffs. For me, it’s starting over, starting fresh and just having a lot of fun playing the game.”
Schneider stopped 34 of 36 shots Monday. He had no chance on Alex Killorn’s second-period power-play goal, set up by a magnificent pass from Nikita Kucherov. But Schneider did get his glove on Steven Stamkos’s power-play goal early in the third period that put the Lightning up, 2-1.
Schneider shut out Tampa Bay from that point, and the Devils beat Lightning goaltender Alexei Vasilevskiy twice and flipped in two empty-net goals to ice the victory.
“He looked steady, where it’s a nice, calming effect,” Devils forward Blake Coleman said of Schneider.
Hynes said: “He looked like the Cory Schneider we know. He was poised in the net. He controlled rebounds. I thought he read plays well. He was quiet. He came up with some big saves when we needed them. Those are the attributes that make Cory such a good goalie — how under control he is, his hockey sense, his ability to read plays and how quiet he plays in the net.”
By “quiet” Hynes meant that the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Schneider did not fling himself around the crease, like Brodeur sometimes did, often in the playoffs.
“He doesn’t make all of these miraculous saves,” Hynes said, “because he’s in position, and his ability to read the play makes the saves look a little bit easier sometimes than they are.”
Midway through the third period, with the score tied, 2-2, Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a former Ranger, barreled into Schneider while attempting a backhand shot. Schneider stopped the shot but stayed down during a chaotic scramble.
Finally, Devils rookie center Nico Hischier drew a tripping penalty on Tampa Bay forward J.T. Miller while clearing the puck. As a sellout crowd chanted, “Cory!,” a trainer came out to attend to Schneider. He skated slowly to the bench. The crowd stopped chanting.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Schneider said. “I was able to push through a bit and finish the game. I should be fine.”
His groin had cramped. Hynes said: “You always want to make sure when you have competitive players that they’re not trying to push through something. For him, it was more cramping than anything. For me, that was comforting as a coach.”
Tampa Bay still leads the series, two games to one, with Game 4 on Wednesday at Prudential Center. Monday’s game ended with a melee that resulted in five 10-minute misconduct penalties for each team.
If Hynes will have Schneider back in goal, Schneider said he will be delighted to be there. He was asked if ending his long losing streak was as important as ending the team’s long streak without a playoff victory, and Schneider had an answer quicker than a pad save.
“I’m happy for the fans,” Schneider said. “They’ve supported us all year, and hopefully, we’ve been a fun team to watch. It’s never about me. It’s not about one individual player. Every person is trying to contribute to the greater good.
“For me, this is what I expect from myself, and it’s never changed the entire year. It’s nice to get the win, but we’ve still got a long ways to go.”