The Canucks' goalie enjoyed yet another brilliant regular season, but the postseason has awoken ghosts of the past, which haunt the Cup dreams of every Vancouver fan
The Tale of Two Goalies played out in Vancouver on Sunday night with ample portions of dread and joy. There was Good Roberto Luongo, happily patting heads with his Canucks teammates after a 27-save performance gave Vancouver a 3--2 win over the Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. But to get to that point, the Canucks first had to overcome Bad Roberto Luongo, who put them in a 1--0 hole late in the first period when he left his crease to make an ill-advised clearing pass along the boards. The puck had landed on the stick of San Jose captain Joe Thornton, who popped it into Vancouver's wide-open net.
For the first time in their 40-year history, the Canucks have the NHL's best team, but there is a vast range of opinion as to whether Luongo, so prone to the catastrophic pratfall, can lead them to their first title. Consider this recent customs-counter interrogation of a visitor by a chirpy female officer at Vancouver International Airport:
"So what do you think of Luongo, eh?"
May 22, 2011
"Well, he's playing well."
"Come on, he's a choker, right? What, you don't think so?"
In Western Canada, acknowledgment of the hometown goalie's shortcomings is apparently a prerequisite to enter the country.
Then again, walk past any downtown souvenir shop on Burrard Street and you are likely to see for sale a T-shirt depicting a scruffy, long-haired goaltender that reads: JESUS SAVES! BUT HE'S NO LUONGO!
No other player in the game can match the better-than-a-savior, worse-than-a-scoundrel duality of Luongo, the 32-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist from Montreal. He is the psychological gold mine (and land mine) on whom the fate of a franchise now rests. On Sunday the B.C. paper The Province ran a full-page story about a Chinese fortune-teller's thoughts on the Canucks. Pictured sitting over a Ouija board, a turtle shell and a feng shui book, oracle Sherman Tai said that Luongo "may sometimes make careless mistakes or be unable to manage pressure." You don't say.
For Luongo, all the late goals, soft goals and gaffes have fogged a superb career that lacks only a Stanley Cup. Agita and ulcers notwithstanding, he is having his best season. Though coach Alain Vigneault limited his workload to 60 games this season, Luongo still led the NHL in wins with 38, was second in goals-against (2.11) and fourth in save percentage (.928). From Jan. 20 through season's end, he did not allow more than three goals in any of his 26 starts.
Luongo already has 308 wins in his 11-season career, the first six of which he spent with the middling Panthers and Islanders. Only five NHL goalies have reached 300 victories at a younger age, and last year he won the most important match in Canada's history, a 3--2 overtime defeat of the U.S. in the Olympic gold medal game. His trajectory should carry him straight into the Hall of Fame.
Yet Luongo's superlatives almost inevitably seem to get swiped aside like a routine kick save. After Canada's Olympic triumph, the first postgame question for Luongo was about the stellar play of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller, who was voted the tournament's outstanding player. When the assembled media finally asked Luongo about his own play, the question concerned the tying goal he gave up to U.S. forward Zach Parise with 24.4 seconds to play. This spring, after Luongo blanked the Predators 1--0 in the opener of Vancouver's second-round series, the first three questions he fielded from reporters were about Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, who had made 29 saves to Luongo's 20, including several highlight-reel stops. Luongo, then, is Rodney Dangerfield on skates. "It's a phenomenon I can't explain or even appreciate," says Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis. "Roberto sets such a high standard that if he does let in a goal people don't expect, he gets criticized more than anybody else."
It's easy to take Luongo for granted. In amassing a league-high 117 points, Vancouver won the first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history and led the league in both goals (262) and goals-against (185). Given the Canucks' powerhouse roster—which includes forward Henrik Sedin, last season's winner of the Hart Trophy as league MVP; his twin brother and linemate, Daniel, a finalist for this year's award; emerging star Ryan Kesler; and a steady defense that runs six deep—Luongo's successes are often overlooked. "What the hell else does he have to do?" asks Canucks winger Alex Burrows. "I know: Win a Stanley Cup. When we win, people think the puck stops itself. No, it's Roberto. I think he's the best goalie in the world." Burrows rightfully points to Luongo's seventh-game 2--1 overtime triumph last month against the Blackhawks, his postseason nemesis, in the first round. The game was a tightrope walk for him, coming as it did after the Canucks had blown a 3--0 series lead and Vigneault had pulled Luongo in Games 4 and 5. "He was such a fighter in that game," says Burrows of Luongo's 31-save performance. "He played his mind out for us."
But Luongo has mixed the remarkable with the rotten before. In 2007 he placed second in Hart Trophy voting and his playoff numbers were brilliant (1.77, .941). In a second-round 2--1 double-overtime loss to the Ducks that eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs, he stopped 56 of 58 shots. But he is most remembered for missing the opening 3:34 of the first overtime because he was in the bathroom with an upset stomach. He compounded his problems with a more catastrophic howler in the second overtime. When Canucks forward Jannik Hansen took a huge hit from Anaheim's Rob Niedermayer, Luongo turned to the officials to plead for a penalty. At almost the same moment, Niedermayer's teammate and brother, Scott, floated a soft 60-footer from the blue line into the net, as a distracted and apparently unaware Luongo looked and pointed in the direction of the hit.
Though Luongo claims to turn a deaf ear to criticism, he said last Thursday, "The great thing about the Olympics is that we were in the Village, so we didn't have to hear all that stuff." Two seasons ago, Farhan Lalji, a correspondent for TSN, Canada's version of ESPN, aired a generally positive piece that critiqued Luongo's inconsistent puckhandling. A full year later, Luongo spotted Lalji in the dressing room after a victory and asked him, "Farhan, when are you going to do a story about my puckhandling now?"
Luongo, generally a pleasant man, has at times tried to play along with his critics with clever humor. After he allowed one goal in a victory over the Blackhawks in the opener of Vancouver's second-round playoff series last spring, Chicago's forwards, especially Dustin Byfuglien, launched a full-frontal assault on Luongo's space and psyche, spraying him with ice shavings, bumping him, poking at him and creating rugby scrums in the crease. The Blackhawks eventually downed Vancouver in six games for the second straight year. In December, Luongo appeared on TSN dressed as a distinguished university professor—wearing eyeglasses down on the bridge of his nose and sporting a scarf and argyle cardigan—to read some playful poems, one of which he addressed to Byfuglien, who had since moved on to the Thrashers:
Human eclipse, rhinoceros hips.
Who will laugh last when I slash your calf?
Bring me peace. Make it cease.
Get your big ass out of my crease.
In the off-season Gillis picked up stay-at-home defenseman Dan Hamhuis to solidify the Canucks' blue line. More important, the G.M. also brought in goalie coach Roland Melanson, who immediately set out to make Luongo less susceptible to physical contact, as well as to the anxiety that goes with it. Melanson persuaded Luongo to stand nearly 18 inches deeper in his crease, rather than exposing himself by playing at its edge or beyond. "We want him to minimize his distractions on the ice, [to] live and die in the paint," says Melanson, who won three Cups as Billy Smith's backup with the Islanders.
Melanson also remade Luongo's footwork from post to post, helping him to both keep his shoulders square to more shots and to seal off low corners of the net more consistently. As for Luongo's sometimes erratic puckhandling, Melanson had his protégé work repeatedly on dump-in drills in which he looked up sooner in order to mark the gaps between his defense and the oncoming forwards, giving him more time to make an outlet pass or leave the puck for one of his defensemen. The result of all the adjustments was one of the best statistical seasons of his career.
But come the playoffs, the Blackhawks—with the benefit of some excellent postseason scouting—exploited the holes in Luongo's new style. After dropping the first three games of the first-round series, Chicago began running tip drills during their off-day practices, springing their quick forwards through the center of the ice to redirect shots into the net's top corners—the spots Luongo was now leaving exposed by setting himself deeper in the crease. The Blackhawks won Games 4 and 5, ringing up 10 goals against Luongo in just 40 shots.
That prompted Vigneault to make the remarkable move of benching his starting goalie for Game 6. But backup Cory Schneider went down with leg cramps in the third period, leaving the shaken Luongo to mop up and start Game 7. He turned to friends and family for support, including younger brothers Leo, a goalie coach in the QMJHL, and Fabio. Leo told Roberto to forget the big picture and think only about stopping the next shot. Fabio told him that things had gotten as bad as they could get, so they could only get better.
Luongo even consulted Montreal sports psychologist Gordon Bloom, who told him to think of happier moments, such as the sight of Sidney Crosby scoring Canada's gold-medal-winning goal. But most of all, Bloom advised Luongo, he should embrace the madness of the playoff crucible. "It was the greatest emotional roller coaster of my life," Luongo says. "Maybe I had to hit the bottom to get back to the top." It was a signature victory, and Luongo's sliding backdoor stop on Patrick Sharp early in overtime to save the Canucks' season was a touchstone moment.
In the next round, against the Predators, a club whose modestly skilled forwards were ill-suited to exploit Luongo's new weaknesses, Luongo was solid when the puck was directly in front of him. But he allowed three costly goals on shots that caromed into the net from odd angles. Nashville's David Legwand beat Luongo with bank shots from behind the net in consecutive games, and defenseman Ryan Suter scored from behind the goal line in Game 2 by knocking the puck off Luongo's outstretched left leg pad. "Roberto sometimes gives up those goals," says coach Alain Vigneault, "but this year he won most of those games with great confidence."
And that may be the biggest reason to fear Good Roberto Luongo this year. His Inspector Clouseau--ian alter ego has not yet broken him. On Sunday three of the Sharks' first four shots were from bad angles in the left corner. In response Luongo dropped into his butterfly stance early and put his stick and right leg pad down against the ice. The Canucks' defense then cleared the rebounds. It was textbook goaltending, and it was all the more impressive considering that with his first-period giveaway, Luongo had given himself another reason to fall apart.
"Maybe in past years," says Gillis, "the adversity would have been too much for us." The hope in Vancouver this spring is not that Luongo's flaws are gone for good but that he can overcome them quickly enough, and often enough, to finally hoist the Stanley Cup over his head.
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FOR LUONGO, ALL THE LATE GOALS, SOFT GOALS AND GAFFES HAVE FOGGED A SUPERB CAREER THAT LACKS ONLY A CUP.
"MAYBE I HAD TO HIT THE BOTTOM," LUONGO SAYS OF HIS 2011 PLAYOFF STRUGGLES, "TO GET BACK TO THE TOP."