VANCOUVER, British Columbia – With every save, with every victory, the crisis fades farther into the past and the Stanley Cup comes closer.
Roberto Luongo(notes) is only three wins away now. He led the Vancouver Canucks to a 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Cup final with a 36-save shutout. Coach Alain Vigneault, who benched him in the first round, said Luongo is playing “some of his best hockey … that I've seen him play.”
Asked when he has ever played better, at least in Vancouver, Luongo hesitated. At first, he said: “I don't know. That’s a tough question to answer.” Pressed, he smiled and conceded: “What can I tell you? I'm in the final. I guess I'm playing pretty well."
I guess so.
I don't know if Luongo will give up another goofy goal and lose Game 2 on Saturday night. I don't know if all the concerns about him will come back just like that. I don't know if he wins the Cup if he will necessarily be validated as a big-game goaltender, either, because he wasn't when he won gold for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics last year, was he?
But I know this: Luongo already has shown guts by making it this far.
It looked like it would all fall apart just a few weeks ago. Luongo allowed 10 goals over two games and was pulled twice. He was benched the next game. He returned to the net only after backup Cory Schneider(notes) suffered a cramp on a penalty shot, and he allowed the losing goal in overtime. The Canucks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that had eliminated them from the playoffs each of the past two years, the team they had fortified themselves to beat. Vigneault had risked alienating the Vezina Trophy finalist who was signed through 2021-22.
But since then, Luongo has gone 10-3 with two shutouts and a whopping .941 save percentage. He won Game 7 in overtime against the Blackhawks. He helped dispatch the Nashville Predators with fellow Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne(notes) at the other end of the rink. The guy who had never escaped the second round won his first appearance in a conference final, beating the San Jose Sharks' Antti Niemi(notes), the guy who had a 6-0 record in playoff series. He began the Cup final by outdueling another fellow Vezina finalist, the Bruins' Tim Thomas(notes).
Luongo has had his hiccups. He allowed some behind-the-net goals against the Predators, and he put a puck right onto the stick of Sharks captain Joe Thornton(notes) and watched it end up in his net for the first goal of that series. But none of the gaffes were fatal, and none seemed to faze him. At least at this point, most importantly, they have been trending downward.
“A lot of people took that Chicago series and kind of held it against him, but I think that was more of the exception and not the rule," Schneider said. "I think he was just determined to finish out that first series and to come back from two games that weren't up to his expectations and to answer all the critics and all the questions about him, and he's done that and more."
Winning games might be easier than winning over the critics for Luongo, because when he screws up, he looks bad, and when he plays well, he looks unremarkable.
Under new goalie coach Roland Melanson this season, Luongo has become more efficient. He has stayed deeper in his crease, which keeps people from pestering him in front – like former Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien(notes) used to do, like Bruins behemoth Zdeno Chara(notes) tried to do on the power play in Game 1. He has tried to stay more upright, keep his shoulders more square and move post-to-post more fluidly.
In other words, Luongo is everything Thomas is not. Thomas was more spectacular in Game 1 even though he made three fewer saves and lost – because he faced more dangerous scoring chances, but also because he has the more spectacular style. He comes out to challenge. He flops all over the place. He seemingly has no pattern and just battles, somehow getting something in front of the puck.
"Thomas does some incredible things out there," Schneider said. "He makes some really tough saves look easy, but he also makes some pretty easy saves look hard.
"So Lou tries to find a bit of a balance where he's just trying to be consistent and our guys know what to expect from him. … He just looks relaxed. He looks at ease and comfortable in the paint, just making stuff look simple. He's not extending himself. He's not on his back or his stomach or swimming around. He's really composed and just playing big and tight and letting pucks hit him."
It's amazing how quickly things can turn. Knowing that, let's wait at least a little bit longer to crown Luongo or call his comeback complete. But let's also appreciate how Luongo, who for so long had all those great regular-season statistics but heard how he had never won when it mattered most, has made that Chicago series seem like a bump in the road to something bigger. Let's listen carefully to something else he said when asked when he has ever played better, turning an old criticism against itself.
"I mean," he said, "I think you measure success in this league obviously by winning. Right now we're three wins away from our ultimate goal. That's all I really can say about that."
Right now, that's all there is to say.