VANCOUVER, British Columbia – I don't think he's lying this time. Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Thursday that he would start goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) against the Boston Bruins on Friday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
"You can bet on that," he said.
Of course, Vigneault said he would start Luongo against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of their first-round series, and he didn't do it. He benched Luongo and gave Cory Schneider(notes) a surprise start under circumstances that seemed, at least on the surface, very similar to the ones the Canucks face now.
The Canucks had been outscored over two games then, 12-2; they have been outscored over two games now, 12-1. Vigneault had pulled Luongo in back-to-back games against the 'Hawks; he pulled him last game against the Bruins and could have – should have – pulled him the game before that.
But this is different. Vigneault said Thursday the Chicago series was a "special situation." The Canucks had lost to the Blackhawks in back-to-back playoffs, and they were in danger of blowing a 3-0 series lead. He said he felt that they "needed to change the momentum a little bit."
"My gut at that time told me that putting Schneids in was the thing to do," Vigneault said. "There is one thing [now]: Roberto is the guy, he's my guy and he's playing. It's that simple."
Well, there is a little more to it than that.
Benching Luongo last time was a big mistake. Vigneault sat a guy who is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender in the regular season – a guy with a mega-million-dollar contract that runs through 2021-22 – in favor of a promising but inexperienced backup. He risked damaging Luongo's confidence, and he legitimized questions about the team's confidence in him.
The move didn't work, though to the Canucks' good fortune everything worked out for the best. In a bizarre turn of events, Schneider suffered cramps while allowing a goal on a penalty shot and had to leave Game 6 of the series. Luongo allowed the overtime winner in relief, but he came back, won Game 7 in overtime and regained his form, at least until the last two games. Having gone through all that, he actually gained confidence. He not only advanced past the second round for the first time, he advanced past the third.
The Canucks had a 3-2 lead in the Chicago series and were on the road. This series is a 2-2 tie, and the Canucks are at home. Most important, this is for the Cup. This isn't about gut feelings anymore. It's about guts. At this stage, you show confidence in the guys who got you here and leave it in their hands.
"You guys should know … the core group and the strong leadership that we have in that dressing room, the accountability that we have in that dressing room, guys aren't happy with how they've played. " Vigneault said. "They're aware of it, and they're going to come ready tomorrow, and they're going to live in the moment and seize this opportunity."
Luongo gave up the captaincy to Henrik Sedin(notes) this season and much has been made of how a burden has been lifted off his shoulders. He has seemed more relaxed. That is true. But it is not as though Luongo has stopped facing questions in Vancouver's hockey-mad media market, and he generally has not avoided them.
He doesn't always tell people what they want to hear. He sometimes makes excuses when he could own his mistakes. Maybe it's a defense mechanism. Maybe if he doesn't admit to himself that he's at fault the negatives are easier to take. I don't know. I'm not his sports psychologist.
I do know, though, that Luongo looked and sounded like a captain again Thursday. The Canucks had spent several hours flying back from Boston and they had to make some players available to the media by league directive. Instead of taking the day off, Luongo showed up with three of his defensemen. Most of the questions were directed to him, and even when they weren't, he took the lead.
"Last time I checked, it's 2-2 in the series," Luongo said. "So I don't see why we should be depressed."
Vancouver fans can see why. Having waited 40 years for the franchise's first Stanley Cup, they were so giddy with the Canucks taking a 2-0 series lead that they partied in the streets after Game 2. At 4:30 a.m., the stragglers among the revelers were still out and about. One carried a homemade Cup on a sidewalk downtown. And now, suddenly, the series has turned, and the Bruins have all the momentum.
Look, it isn't all Luongo's fault. It isn't even close. The Bruins have been pounding the Canucks and wearing them down. The defense has been thinned by an injury to Dan Hamhuis(notes) and a suspension to Aaron Rome(notes). The offense has been struggling to finish scoring chances. The Canucks' top players – Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin(notes) and Ryan Kesler(notes) – have only one goal and two assists between them in this series.
Asked how he could solve Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas(notes), Henrik Sedin said: "I don't know. Do you have an answer for me? We have to keep doing the things we are. He's playing well right now like [Luongo] is when he's hot."
That says a lot right there. Thomas is hot; Luongo is not.
The theory has been that with so much talent in front of him – the winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team – Luongo doesn't need to carry the Canucks. His job is not to win games; it's to not lose them.
That has generally been true. Until now. Luongo's team is struggling at the most critical point in the season, and at the other end of the ice is a fellow Vezina finalist.
Actually, Thomas isn't just a fellow Vezina finalist. Luongo already beat one of those in the second round in the Nashville Predators' Pekka Rinne(notes). Thomas is the Vezina favorite, and he's playing like it – like a difference-maker, like a leader, making save after save and even mixing it up with miscreants who dare to invade his space in the crease. He's in a zone, even if he wouldn't call it that.
"I've heard a lot of talk about the zone and stuff over the course of my career, but I don't feel much different than I did for most of the season right now," Thomas said. "The puck definitely doesn't look any bigger. It doesn't look like a beach ball. It looks like a normal-sized puck. One thing when you're playing better, you're just able to track the puck better around the whole ice, and that's happening well for me right now."
It needs to happen for Luongo right now, too. With the Cup on the line, with their skaters struggling, with the other goaltender shining, the Canucks need their goaltender to at least balance the scales a bit – to be a difference-maker, to win and not just not lose.
At times like this, you go with your $10-million man, not your backup. It's that simple.
"We're all pretty upset with ourselves and our performances," Luongo said. "So at the end of the day, we're two wins away from reaching the ultimate goal, so I don't think it's a time for us to be putting our heads down or to not have any confidence. I think we're close, and we want to make sure that we all bring our 'A' game."
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- Alain Vigneault