June 14, 2011
BOSTON — The dissimilarities begin with aesthetics.
Roberto Luongo(notes) has the features and slicked back hair of an Italian soap star, unabated by a playoff beard. Tim Thomas(notes) looks like the older brother of Yukon Cornelius, who stocks shelves at the local beer store after hours.
Luongo wears No. 1, the number of Jacques Plante, but the goalie digit that infamously hasn't been seen around a Stanley Cup since 1975. Thomas, meanwhile, wears the number (30) that's been worn by Martin Brodeur(notes), Gump Worsley and Chris Nilan … and there's something wonderfully appropriate about that.
Luongo was drafted fourth overall in 1997 by the New York Islanders, ostensibly to be their franchise goalie. He flamed out in training camp, returned to junior, eventually played 24 games with the Islanders and watched them draft Rick DiPietro(notes) to replace him — with DiPietro becoming the highest drafted goalie of all time, breaking the standard set by Luongo.
(Mike Milbury, in his infinite wisdom, traded him to Florida in a deal so lopsided that we can't reprint its different components without uncontrollably giggling.)
Thomas was drafted No. 217 overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 and didn't see a game of NHL action until 2003, bouncing around Europe and playing for teams like the Detroit Vipers.
If Luongo was The Chosen One, Thomas was The Discarded One.
Luongo is a conservative, butterfly-style goaltender whose 6-foot-3 frame fills the net. As Luongo was quick to point out after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, Thomas is a roaming, chaotic goalie whose style can be a liability one night and a savior the next. He's also around 5-foot-11, making him a pug to Luongo's Great Dane.
Thomas has a Vezina Trophy, and probably will have another after next week. Luongo has been nominated three times, and will remain sans Vezina in Las Vegas this year.
The Stanley Cup Final has exposed many more differences between these two goaltenders, from demeanor to consistency to respect in the media to mental toughness. All of those facets will combine to create one of the two final differences between Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas after Wednesday night's Game 7:
Thomas will have the Conn Smythe Trophy, and Roberto Luongo will not.
The question is, will Luongo counter that accolade with something Thomas doesn't have: The Stanley Cup?
Luongo is in the midst of one of the strangest-ever performances for a goaltender in the Stanley Cup Final. Think about a hitter who bats .150 on the road and looks like Ted Williams at home. Think about an NBA player who can't put the ball in the ocean on the road but posts triple-doubles with ease at home.
Luongo has given up 15 goals and has been pulled twice in Boston. Luongo has two shutouts and has given up 2 goals on 97 shots. It really is the oddest thing.
My pet theory is that he's a hockey masochist, a player who needs to hit rock bottom, feel the weight of the world on him to really excel in difficult situations. I also think Coach Alain Vigneault sees him as a bit of a martyr: When Luongo is rocked and pulled, his team will respond with a defiant effort as intense as Luongo's in the following game.
(There could be doctorate studies written about the psychological conundrum that are the Vancouver Canucks. Fragile psyches, fragile egos, taunting, biting … forget the Flyers and Rangers on "24/7," give us the Canucks on Dr. Phil.)
As unsteady as Luongo has looked in the Final, Thomas has looked self-assured.
He has played his best hockey of the playoffs in the final round. That shouldn't be the determining factor for the Conn Smythe, which (thank the hockey gods) is an award for the entirety of the tournament. But he's given up eight goals in six finals games. The last goalie to win the Conn Smythe, Cam Ward(notes) of the Carolina Hurricanes, gave up 11 in his first six games. Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), who won in a losing effort for Anaheim in 2003, gave up 15 in six games.
What's contributed to Thomas's dominance? The sum of his playoff experiences, he said after Game 6:
"I was just thinking about last year's run the other day and how much being able to see the game from a different side really helped me. Kind of seeing the in's and out's and the way that people interact during the playoffs and, you know, the things that we were doing which gave us the success that we did have last year. Just see it go from a different side, I think that helped.
"I'd never really had that opportunity in my career before. I was always on the ice and so focused with playing, so all those little things add up.
"I think, you know, having my first playoff series in Montreal with that type of crowd, that's helped the rest of my playoff experiences. I've experienced probably the loudest crowd in the NHL, that's what it feels like at Bell Center. And, you know, losing Game 7 to Carolina was an experience that, you know, it helped me in the long run."
Thomas will be the playoff MVP. It's not really even a debate worth having after Game 6, unless Ryan Kesler(notes) is the No. 1 offensive star in a Vancouver Game 7 win. That's the only way Thomas might not win, and even that's a longshot.
No, the debate is whether Thomas and his team can solve Luongo on his home ice.
Luongo will bounce back in Game 7, and so will the Canucks. They're a plus-7 as a team at home, and minus-14 on the road. To a man, the Bruins acknowledged last night was a mulligan for Vancouver in postgame comments, and that their own efforts in Vancouver have been underwhelming.
Pressed for a prediction, I'll allow the dramatist in me a moment of prognostication: Canucks win, 1-0, with Luongo getting his third shutout of the Final.
But much like when Roberto wore that Olympic gold medal around his neck in Vancouver last year, the accolades and the respect and the MVP award will go to the American goaltender who outplayed him in the tournament.
And that's the difference.