If I were Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, I would spend the rest of my offseason trying to remember one thing: Roberto Luongo was a kid once, and so was Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ken Dryden, BernieParent and all the great and near-great goalies who have populated the NHL.
It won't ease the sting of losing to the Bruins in four straight. It won't take away the pain of being mocked by his own team's fans after he was beaten for four goals in the first 33 minutes of Montreal's last-chance game. This was a Canadiens team of which much was expected and precious little was delivered. It will, however, provide a ray of hope. A lifeline the likes of which kept the captain of the Maersk Alabama afloat until the sharpshooters arrived.
The Canadiens weren't good enough to beat the best team in the Eastern Conference. Not good enough to win one game. Price played a part in that. He wasn't good enough and he wasn't mentally tough enough. That was borne out when he responded with an angry gesture at a sellout crowd in the Bell Centre that had invested its hopes for a successful 100th anniversary season and saw them fall away to a rival that was, without question, better at every facet of the game.
In the end, the fans and Canadiens management wanted Price to be anything other than what he is: a 22-year-old kid who is not yet the second coming of any of the above-mentioned greats.
What Price is, however, is a goalie capable of being like Luongo. What people forget is that Luongo, who almost singlehandedly carried the Canucks to a four-game sweep of St. Louis, was 10 years in the making. He came to the league with an all-world reputation (not unlike Price), but after an impressive showing in the World Junior Championships, still had to learn his craft. He had to do it through stops with the Islanders and the Panthers before even getting a taste of playoff competition with the Canucks. He had to do it through taunts from fans and questions from media and even doubts from hockey people who wondered if he would ever grow beyond his early promise.
Luongo did that in his series against the Blues. He was brilliant, but an overnight sensation he was not. St. Louis played well in their run-up to a playoff berth and in the series with Vancouver, but had no answer for Luongo. His 47-save effort in the 3-2 series-clincher in overtime was a thing of beauty, but it was no more beautiful than his 2-1 triumph in Game One, his 3-0 masterpiece in Game Two, or his 3-2 overtime triumph in Game Three. In short, Luongo was a goalie playing on the cutting edge of perfection. And it only came a decade after the first expectation.
"He's the best in the world," said an obviously relieved Shane O'Brien, one of the many Canucks Luongo saved after miscues in Vancouver's end. "This guy is awesome. When I look into his eyes on faceoffs, I've never seen anyone so focused."
O'Brien is young, so young as to have never looked into the eyes of a Dryden, Parent, Hasek in his prime, or Roy at his best, but he's not wrong. Luongo is 30 now, an age when good goaltenders begin a metamorphous toward greatness. It's fair to say we still don't know how great he is going to be. Unlike Price, he wasn't facing the best team in his conference with a squad that barely qualified for the playoffs. He was facing a decent team skating without several key players and with its best years (at least in the immediate future) ahead of it. That's not to take anything away from Luongo's play, but facts are facts, and one could argue he took advantage of that.
A victim of high expectations and poor management in both New York and Florida, Luongo only started to reach his potential in his last three seasons with Vancouver. Even now, he's never played beyond the second round, so it's fair to say we don't even know whether he can handle the growing pressure while manning the toughest position in sports. There is now, however, evidence that he might be ready to try.
Through the first four games, in addition to being 4-0, Luongo had a .962 save percentage and 1.15 goals-against average against a team that had been manufacturing scores, especially clutch tallies since the midway point of the regular season. He gave a hint that all this was possible with a memorable 47-save performance in a late-season showdown with Calgary while first place in the Northwest Division was on the line.
There were other hints: Two seasons ago, in a first-round elimination game against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Ducks, Luongo stopped 56 of 58 shots. That's the kind of performance that gives a team more than just hope. It gives confidence, the kind of can't-lose belief the Sabres used to have with Hasek.The Flyers had it with Parent. The Devils have it with Brodeur.
It may be that Price has to leave Montreal (a difficult place to play even in the best of times) to make that happen. It would be a shame for Canadiens fans because it appears Price has that kind of ability. He just needs time to develop it and some mental toughness. They may well have to come outside the shadows cast by Roy and Dryden, two Montreal legends who, one could argue, played behind much better teams.
It took time, but it finally happened for Luongo. "This year, I knew what was coming," he told reporters after his triumph over the Blues. "Maybe that helped me a little bit at the start of the series and hopefully it will carry me the rest of the playoffs."
Maybe, but at least he had the time to realize what it takes and now has the satisfaction of knowing what's possible. Price hasn't, and one can't help wonderiing if he ever will. Still, 10 years from now, things might be different, though one gets the feeling he'll need a change of scene to help make it happen.
Missing out on a long-trip out West to play a very physical Ducks team has been a godsend for the Red Wings. Not only are they not dealing with the long travel and time zone issues, they aren't taking the same kind of pounding from the Blue Jackets that the Sharks are getting from the Ducks.
It's long been proven in the NHL that a team with real Stanley Cup hopes needs at least one walkover series. A veteran team likely needs one or more, or at least to have a banged-up opponent come to it when it is rested. It's not possible for the Wings to escape a Western swing, but it makes a huge difference if they get a Ducks team that's been extended by the Sharks.
If the Sharks ultimately triumph, they will face the winner of what appears to be a long series between Calgary and Chicago while the Wings get the Canucks. Sure it's a long trip to Vancouver and the Canucks have Luongo, but they are more of a skating team and, well, the Red Wings not only get home ice, they can skate with anyone. They also have the confidence that comes from knowing how to win AND having goalie Chris Osgood regain his form and confidence in the series with the Jackets.
It's not unusual to have a lot of physical play in the first round. The teams are jacked and ready to give everything they have on the first step on a long road to the Cup. The NHL anticipates that and tends to act accordingly, but this season it appears that too much is going on in the "message-sending" department and the extra activity is mindless, boring and taking the games to excessive lengths.
Exactly what is gained from these endless meetings in the goalie crease after every stoppage in play? The league could stop it in a heartbeat just by calling a penalty or two during the pushing, shoving and face-washing that seems to take place after nearly every stoppage in play. Players will get the message. The question at the moment is: exactly what message is the league trying to send?
And, finally, in the category of "some things go on forever" we have Chicago-Buffalo-Detroit goalie Dominik Hasek ending his most recent retirement (seriously, this happens more times than General Motors pleads for money) and attempting a comeback with a local team in his native Czech Republic. Hasek hopes to make the Czech national team for the 2010 Olympics.
Now, it's possible that Hasek has yet another line of clothing he wants to introduce, or that he's seen Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and can't separate fantasy from reality. A more likely explanation is that one of the most competitive people in the history of sport simply hasn't found anything yet that matches the joy of competition.
It's all good, of course, until that first groin strain or joint pops out of place, but what the heck. George Foreman had some success in this regard and Claude Lemieux may yet suit up for one playoff game with the San Jose Sharks. I seem to recall a 50-plus Gordie Howe looking not all that far out of place with the Hartford Whalers, who back then often looked more out of place than Howe.
In any event, what's wrong with trying? Hasek's physical gifts are gone, but then one can say the same about a series of women (hello Nancy Sinatra) who grace the pages of a certain men's magazine that doesn't care about swimsuits or even who issues them.
Who knows? Hasek just might make it, and even if he doesn't, the world could always make use of another fat-free grill, a person nicknamed "Pepe" or a pair of boots that aren't using for walking let along covering up a few stretch marks.
Good luck, Dom. Just make certain the surgeon you may eventually need doesn't specialize in plastics.