ANAHEIM, Calif. – This just in: Roberto Luongo is mortal.
Casual fans might be asking, "Roberto who?" But the puckheads among us must be asking, "Roberto Luongo is mortal? You can’t be serious, can you?"
We're serious. Very serious.
The Anaheim Ducks did more than beat the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In a 5-1 victory, they dispelled the myth that Luongo, Vancouver's splendid goaltender, can single-handedly carry the Canucks into the Western Conference finals. The Ducks did this in astonishing fashion, too.
Roughly 10 minutes into the series opener at the Honda Center, Anaheim trailed 1-0. This can cause serious panic, as Luongo, all 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds of him, has a tendency to make the net as impenetrable as a Brinks truck. But then, in less than half a period, the Ducks managed to do something few teams have pulled off all season – they humbled Luongo. Maybe even embarrassed him.
They beat him for three goals.
To put that into perspective, Luongo had not given up three goals in a game, much less during a 20-minute period, since Vancouver's 5-4 victory against the Dallas Stars two weeks ago. And on that night, he stopped 72 of 76 shots in a marathon that stretched into four overtimes – well past midnight – and prompted talk that the Canucks' goaltender might be superhuman.
During that seven-game series, Luongo faced 240 shots and gave up only 12 goals for a startling .950 save percentage. His play transcended statistics. At times, Luongo resembled Jacques Plante, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur rolled up into one. On Wednesday night, however, he looked simply human.
By the end he also looked shell-shocked, skating to the bench in the third period after Anaheim scored its fourth goal and coach Alain Vigneault waved the white flag from behind the Vancouver bench with a goalie change.
In the days leading up to the Western Conference semifinal series, when the Ducks weren't hailing Luongo as the greatest goaltender since the discovery of ice, they were pouring over game tape, studying his every move, every twitch, every trick, looking for weaknesses that others had failed to find. Andy McDonald, the Ducks center, acknowledged as much after scoring three goals Wednesday night. But when pressed for details of what the Ducks had found in examining those tapes, he grinned and said, "I'm not saying."
So we might have to wait another week for McDonald or someone else to divulge details, but the Ducks' overall strategy was clear enough. First, they created the kind of traffic in front of Luongo that one rarely sees outside Orange County freeways at rush hour. Swirling and swarming in front of Vancouver's net, the Ducks obscured Luongo's vision under the premise of what a goalie can't see he can't stop.
Case in point: With the Ducks on a power play, defensemen Chris Pronger took his spot just inside the blue line and let loose a one-timer. It didn’t have the eyes – or the heat – to beat Luongo, but in the ensuing scrum in front of the net, the puck wound up on McDonald's stick.
As Luongo strained to see through the tangle of legs and arms in front of him, McDonald fired a shot between Luongo's pads for a game-tying goal. Five minutes later, with bodies again piled up in front of the net like cars on nearby highway 405, Ducks winger Teemu Selanne took a pass, swept to his left around a Canucks defensemen, and backhanded the puck past Luongo. Ducks 2, Canucks 1.
"We have to make sure he doesn't see all the pucks," Selanne said after the game. "Otherwise it is going to be too easy for him."
Another part of the strategy: Abandon the shooting-gallery style. Madly firing the puck at Luongo can be a futile exercise. So the Ducks moved the puck, forcing Luongo to shift positions and create gaps, however small. And then, with less than a minute to play in the first period, came the breakaway.
On a two-on-one rush, Selanne slipped a pass to McDonald, who fired the puck between Luongo's pads and into the net. Ducks 3, Canucks 1.
When Luongo skated off the ice at the end of the period, a teammate tapped him on the shin pad in a sign of reassurance. And when Luongo emerged for the second period, he played like the goaltender who had frustrated opponents during his 47-win regular season. He flipped and flopped and dived and danced and sprawled and slid and made enough spectacular saves – 14 in all that period – to fill a highlight reel.
By midway though the third period it appeared that Luongo might be able to reassert his dominance.
With crisp passing, Ryan Getzlaf finished a tic-tac-toe play with a shot that eluded Luongo and sent him to the showers. For good measure, McDonald completed his hat trick on a goal in the final minute that prompted fans to throw a hailstorm of hats and towels onto the ice. The towels were promotional giveaways, and they kept on sailing into the air and onto the rink, holding up play for several minutes, before the P.A. announcer finally intoned, "We're celebrating a hat trick, not a towel trick … Let's show some Anaheim pride."
There was pride, all right. The Ducks' first line, which amassed only three points in five games against the Minnesota Wild in the first round, accounted for all three goals during the first period Wednesday. The Ducks' defense helped force the Canucks forwards off to the side, giving Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere a better view of shots than his counterpart. Any time the frustrated Canucks shoved, the Ducks shoved back even harder. They answered every crushing bodycheck with one of their own, and snarled and stared down their opponents any time things flared up.
Plenty of Anaheim pride.
But by the time the Ducks left the ice and entered the locker room, the celebration was over. McDonald, even after his hat trick, soberly discussed things as if even a trace of a smile might be interpreted as gloating and an affront to Luongo. And Giguere, the Ducks goaltender who led his team all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003 and made 26 saves Wednesday night, sounded as if he were simply honored to have been on the ice at the same time as Luongo.
"He's the best goalie in the world," Giguere said.
Better than Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils superstar?
"No offense to Marty," he said
When Luongo was at his best Wednesday night, he clearly looked like the best goalie on the ice. But in Anaheim’s 5-1 victory, the Ducks proved something about playoff games that so often hinge on goaltending.
It’s nice to have a superior goalie, but even better to have the superior team.
- Roberto Luongo
- Anaheim Ducks