Tuesday August 25th, 2009

A year ago, goaltending appeared to be the one position that was nailed down for the Canadians as they began their preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Martin Brodeur was the returning hero from the 2002 gold medal team. Roberto Luongo was the heir apparent. And some lucky youngster would earn a coveted seat at Canada Hockey Place to watch all the action from the stands.

After a pair of shaky playoff performances, things don't look so certain now. Instead, this sets up as the perhaps most intriguing battle for the home team. Not that anything's changed regarding the first two spots. Barring a freak injury -- and remember, both players were down simultaneously last winter -- it's inconceivable that Brodeur and Luongo won't be part of this team.

But don't assume that their presence guarantees either one the starting job. Where Marty Turco (2006) and Ed Belfour (2002) were limited to the role of spectator, things could be very different this time around for the third member of Canada's netminding trio.

In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if Marc-Andre Fleury or Cam Ward is between the pipes when Canada lines up against Norway for the tournament opener on Feb. 16.

No matter how much talent they have to choose from for the forward and defense corps, Canada's fortunes will rely, as always, on its goaltending. With the pressure on during the intense two-week tournament, the goalie best prepared for the moment may not be the biggest name.

Canadian GM Steve Yzerman has said this is going to be a team built around now, not the past. And the recent past isn't so flattering for the incumbents.

Last we saw Brodeur in action was Game 7 of New Jersey's opening round series against Carolina. After allowing a soft goal by Tuomo Ruutu to open the scoring, Brodeur settled down to help the Devils nurse a one-goal lead into the final moments. If only it had ended like that. Instead, Brodeur was beaten not once, but twice in the final 80 seconds to cough up both the lead and the series...and neither of the goals were what you'd call unstoppable.

Brodeur is the most decorated goalie in recent memory -- three Stanley Cups and four Vezinas -- and that was just one game, but it was the biggest game of his season. The meltdown won't cost him the job, but it puts him under closer scrutiny. At 37, his game is in decline. It may be subtle, but he's not the player he was in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Think Luongo's ready to assume the mantle?

Last we saw, Luongo in action he was shelled for seven goals on just 30 shots as his Canucks bowed out meekly to the Blackhawks in Game 6 of their second-round series. The wide-open style of that one probably won't be replicated in the Olympics, but when a goalie allows four third period goals -- and coughs up a pair of leads -- his big game readiness is up for debate.

No one will forget Luongo's stellar stand-in performance in the 2004 World Cup semi-finals, but that's been in the books for six years. His recent record is something less than reassuring: Luongo went 2-4 with a 3.50 GAA and a stunning .879 save percentage in against Chicago.

One series doesn't negate his past accomplishments, but it does leave an impression.

Both men have three months to author their reassurances. But a failure to impress could turn the battle for the third spot on the roster into a challenge for the starting job.

It's hard to imagine Canada throwing Steve Mason into the fire just yet, though based on what he showed in the World Juniors and in a spectacular rookie campaign with the Blue Jackets, he'll get his chance on the big stage soon enough. Fleury and Ward, though? They have to be taken seriously.

Fleury doesn't have the credentials of Luongo or Brodeur. And he has his own big-game meltdown to live down (his errant pass bounced off Braydon Coburn and into his own net for the decisive goal in America's 4-3 win over Canada in the 2004 World Junior gold medal game).

But there's a developing hint of Grant Fuhr in Fleury's game. The Oilers' legend may not have made all the saves, but he made them when they mattered. Consider the 1987 Canada Cup Finals. Fuhr coughed up a whopping 16 goals over three games, but the other guy gave up 17, and that's what it takes to skate away with the hardware.

Say what you want about Fleury's foibles -- his suspect positioning is worse for a fan's blood pressure than a table salt IV -- but his last win did come in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the defending champs in their rink. He has his moments, but it looks like he's learned how to handle the pressure.

There are questions about Ward, too. He was in net when Canada blew a two-goal lead in the 2008 World Championship match, but his recent play hints at a growing maturity. Though the Hurricanes ran out of steam against the Penguins in the Eastern finals, the 2006 Conn Smythe-winner proved his mental toughness by outlasting Brodeur and Vezina-winner Tim Thomas in a pair of Game 7 wins on the road. There's nothing flashy about his game, but that might be ideal for the Canadians.

With so much on the line, Yzerman and his staff won't make any assumptions. Canada can't settle for Mr. Right. Come February, they'll need Mr. Right Now.

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