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Another downer for Canucks' Roberto Luongo

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
Another downer for Canucks' Roberto Luongo
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Which Roberto Luongo will we see in Game 7: the one that pitches shutouts, or the one that pulls puck …

BOSTON – As soon as Roberto Luongo(notes) walked into the dressing room, he was surrounded – swarmed, really. The reporters were on all sides, overflowing out the door and into the hallway. Voice recorders pressed inches from his lips. Boom mics almost brushed the bill of his cap. TV cameras and spotlights pointed at his face, held high by men on stepstools, hoping to get a clear angle above the horde.

Luongo spoke for about three minutes. He actually asked the key question.

"I've got to believe in myself, right?" he said.

Right there is the heart of this enigma, the Jekyll and Hyde of elite goaltenders, the guy who can get pulled and then pitch a shutout and then get pulled again in the Stanley Cup Final. After another Luongo meltdown Monday night and a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Canucks' dream season has been reduced to a Game 7 on Wednesday night in Vancouver.

It hinges on somebody who has bounced back before but always leaves you wondering if he can bounce back again – and why he has to keep bouncing back like this at all. It could be a defining moment for Luongo, but you wonder whether he has already defined himself, no matter what he does now.

Luongo will start Wednesday night. "I haven't talked to him," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "He knows he's going back in next game. He's going to be real good." All the Canucks can do is shrug this off, act like it's no big deal and hope their $10 million man does the same. They have to inspire confidence in him, because he struggles to inspire it in himself sometimes, leaving his opponents to take advantage.

This is an Olympic gold medalist. This is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. When Luongo is good, he's among the best. In three home games in this series, he is 3-0 with a .979 save percentage and two shutouts.

But he is also a brooder. He invites self-doubt and doubters, and when he self-destructs, he's spectacular. In three road games in this series, he is 0-3 with a .773 save percentage and has been pulled twice.

Luongo gave up 12 goals over Games 3 and 4 in Boston. He bounced back with a 1-0 shutout in Game 5 in Vancouver, but afterward, he set himself up for Game 6, when he allowed three goals on eight shots and got yanked just 8:35 into the first period in front of delighted, howling fans at TD Garden.

It really wasn't what Luongo said about Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas(notes) – that he would have made the save on the winning goal in Game 5, because he plays deeper in his crease and has an easier time when pucks ricochet off the end boards. He was giving an honest answer to a question about goaltending style. He said Thomas makes some saves he doesn't, too.

"It was an innocuous comment," said Cory Schneider(notes), Luongo's backup. "It was taken out of context."

But the story became the story, and it swallowed Luongo whole. The media blew it up. Reporters ran to Thomas and Bruins coach Claude Julien and drew some juicy sound bites. Luongo followed up by saying he had been pumping Thomas' tires but Thomas hadn't said anything nice about him, making him sound insecure, craving for respect.

Sometimes perception is reality. Sometimes perception becomes reality. Luongo looked weak, and the Bruins attacked that weakness.

In warm-ups Monday night, Thomas and Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton(notes) fired pucks at Luongo. Thornton went up and barked something at Luongo while he was stretching near the red line. Asked what he said, Thornton said: "Nothing. All right. That's it, boys. I've got to go eat. Thanks." Then he laughed and bolted from reporters. But it wasn't nothing. "I can't say it on the air," Luongo said, surrounded by all those microphones. I'm guessing Thornton wasn't pumping his tires. He was flattening them.

Schneider blew off the incident as Thornton doing his job as an agitator. "I don't know if he did it and it worked," he said, "but I don't think so." But I'm not so sure, not with Luongo already carrying the weight of Vancouver's 40-year wait for the Cup, the thousands of fans back home on the streets waiting to celebrate, the league's best regular-season team in front of him expecting to win.

The Canucks carried the play early, but Luongo looked shaky kicking a routine long shot to the side with his right pad. Then Brad Marchand(notes) attacked his most vulnerable spot, snapping a shot past his glove from the right circle at 5:31. (Had Luongo come out of his crease and cut the angle like Thomas, would he have stopped that puck?) "He put it where he wanted it, but I've got to make that save," Luongo said.

Milan Lucic(notes) scored just 35 seconds later, taking a drop pass, skating in and slipping the puck between Luongo's legs. The fans could smell it now. They chanted Luongo's name. The game presentation staff could smell it now. The Bruins showed Nathan Horton(notes) on the scoreboard waving a yellow towel, using the concussed star as inspiration.

Andrew Ference(notes) struck just 2:29 after that with a floater from the left point through a screen that eluded Luongo's right pad, and that was that. Luongo was yanked. As he departed, he tried to tell Schneider to "shut the door," but Schneider said he couldn't hear him. The Garden was just too damn loud.

Say what you want about the Canucks. Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes) haven't done enough. Ryan Kesler(notes) has been ineffective playing through injury. The list goes on. But they know when Luongo is off, and when they do, they sag. Schneider came in cold and gave up a goal on the second shot he faced. Four goals in 4:14. A Cup Final record.

"Four bad minutes," Canucks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff(notes) said, "and the game was gone."

The Cup is not gone. Luongo won his gold medal for Team Canada in Vancouver. He bounced back from two horrendous performances and a benching against his old nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks, and won Game 7 in overtime in the first round in that same rink. He has given up only two goals in three games at home in this series.

But as Luongo sat on the bench Monday night, the fans kept chanting his name – in the second period, in the third. The organist played "Chelsea Dagger," the song the Blackhawks use to celebrate goals, Luongo's own personal laugh track. They smelled it, and they still smell it.

If you're the Bruins, you know you've dominated the Canucks at home and have climbed into Luongo's head – and as good as Luongo has been at home, he has won three one-goal games decided in the third period or overtime. If you're the Bruins, you're the underdogs. You've got the momentum and nothing to lose. Luongo has everything to lose. One leaky goal could lead to a flood. One leaky goal might be enough, period.

Luongo said all the right things when he was surrounded by those reporters after the game. Asked about Thomas, he said the Bruins goalie had played well and that he had been saying so all along. Asked if he felt he had let the guys down, he said the worst thing he could do now would be to hang his head. Asked if this would be like Game 7 against Chicago, he pointed out it would be a bigger stage.

"It's the Stanley Cup Final," Luongo said. "It's one game, winner take all. I've been in those situations before. I know how to handle it. I'll be ready for it."

Right?

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