All eyes on Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – The yellow taxi cab pulled up to the loading dock. The door opened, and out stepped Roberto Luongo(notes), dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a hat, pressing a cell phone to his left ear. Two arena workers were standing outside on a cigarette break. The autograph seekers hadn’t arrived yet. Luongo walked into the rink anonymously.

But this was Detroit on a gray Tuesday before practice, some 30 hours before Wednesday night’s clash of the Canucks and Red Wings, the top clubs in the Western Conference. This was not Vancouver, where hopes are so high for a group that needs only two points to tie the franchise record of 105, that likely will win the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team, that has been trying to win the Stanley Cup for 40 seasons and will enter the playoffs this time as the favorite.

There, eyes are always on Luongo.

“I’m driving in the car, and they’re walking across the street the other way, and they see me out of the blue,” Luongo said. “How do they do that? I don’t know.” He’s amazed even though he doesn’t have tinted windows, standard-issue equipment for a professional athlete. “Still, I’m going 60 miles an hour, and they see me,” he said. “They’re fans, and it’s nice to be in an environment like that, especially when you’re winning.”

Maybe only when you’re winning. The bar couldn’t be higher for Luongo as the playoffs approach. He is the NHL’s highest-paid goaltender – making $10 million this season, before his salary drops to $6.7 million over the next seven years of a contract that runs through 2021-22 – at a time when cheaper goaltending is the trend. He plays for the league’s highest-ranked team, which has only the highest aspirations.

When he arrived in Vancouver in 2006, Luongo was hailed as a hero. That’s because he had been able to play the hero for five seasons with the Florida Panthers, bailing out a bad team with big saves. There was no pressure. The Panthers never made the playoffs. But with the Canucks, if he wins, he is doing what he should with an elite team, and if he loses, he gets the bulk of the blame.

The Canucks have never escaped the second round with Luongo in goal, and people are still waiting for him to prove he can win when it matters most – even though he won gold with Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, of all places.

And so little has been made of what Luongo has done this season. Luongo, who turns 32 on April 4, is tied for third in the league in wins with 33, even though he has played less than in the past. He is tied for third in save percentage at .925, which would be the second-best SP of his career. He is fourth in goals-against average at 2.23, which would be the best GAA of his career.

“You have so much exposure being out there in a Canadian market that people began to overrate him, and it has gotten to the point now where he’s almost underrated,” said Cory Schneider(notes), Luongo’s backup. “It’s almost reversed. He’s just done what people expect him to do, and therefore it’s, ‘Aw, that’s just another year for Roberto,’ when, anybody else, that’s a career season.”

The Canucks have helped Luongo, partly by design, partly by default.

Luongo gave up the captaincy in the off-season, ceding it to Henrik Sedin(notes), the winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player last year. He said not much has changed for him. He’s still vocal in the dressing room, still speaks to the media often. But there is a reason goaltenders usually don’t add that extra burden, and Schneider has seen a change in him.

“Is he a leader on this team? For sure,” Schneider said. “It’s just, maybe this year he seems a little more relaxed, a little more comfortable and at ease, and just has more fun. I think it’s tough to put those kinds of expectations on someone who has expectations that are like his. … Maybe last year he was pressing a little too hard, trying to do a little too much just to show that he deserved it.”

The Canucks brought in a new goalie coach, Roland Melanson, who has taught Luongo to play deeper, shorten movements and control rebounds without dropping to the ice as quickly. After an adjustment period early this season, Luongo took off. He said he feels his technique is the best it has ever been, and it has helped him be more consistent.

Schneider has been so good that Luongo hasn’t had to play as often. Schneider actually has better numbers: 14-3-2, 2.22, .927. Luongo has played 54 games, after playing at least 65 in six of the past seven seasons.

The Canucks have added grit and depth, most notably forwards Manny Malhotra(notes) and Raffi Torres(notes) and defensemen Keith Ballard(notes) and Dan Hamhuis(notes). Even though an injury epidemic has offset that – five of the top six defensemen were out at one point, and Malhotra is now out for the season after taking a puck in the eye – the team has tightened up.

“We’re not giving up as many chances this year as we did last year,” Henrik Sedin said. “Last year, he took a lot of criticism for the way he played, but I think as a team we didn’t play good enough in front of him. This year, we’ve played better, and he’s got some help from the new goalie coach, and he’s done a great job.”

The Canucks don’t need Luongo to carry them. They don’t need him to steal a series. But they might need him to steal a game now and then, and they definitely will need him to make key saves at key times.

Mostly they will need nights of no credit but no blame, like March 8, when they fell into a 2-0 hole at Phoenix and Luongo kept them in it. The goaltender who was named the first star was the Coyotes’ Ilya Bryzgalov(notes). But the goaltender who won was Luongo, 4-3, in overtime.

Luongo laughed when asked if the expectations were higher than ever in Vancouver.

“Well, I can’t speak for the last 40 years, only the last five,” Luongo said. “You try to stay away from that stuff. We’re kind of in our own bubble. I know that on a personal level it’s the closest I’ve ever been. It’s the best team, bar none, that I’ve played with. It’s the first time in my career that I can sit on the top of the standings looking down on everybody else.”

Luongo knows the higher you are, the harder you can fall. He knows all he needs to do to break out of that bubble is drive down the street, look out his window and feel all the eyes staring back at him.

But he does seem relaxed, and he said it’s easier to be that way when your team already has 100 points. He said he has matured along with teammates like Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler(notes), who have made a conscious effort to keep more of an even keel this season. And maybe it has just taken time for him to feel comfortable in this situation.

“I think I’ve won at every level,” Luongo said. “It’s not a matter of proving to anybody or myself that I can win. I know that I can win. It’s just a matter of going out there and playing hockey and winning it.”

We’ll see.

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