Win or lose, Luongo can't shake labels

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Ben Eager(notes) said he had "a little chuckle" as he read the paper over breakfast Monday morning. He came across a comment from Roberto Luongo(notes), the Vancouver Canucks' great-but-never-good-enough goaltender, who indirectly blamed Eager for his lowlight-reel gaffe Sunday.

Luongo said Eager had slashed his stick "a few minutes earlier," and so it was "kind of broken," and he "didn't get all of it," and that's why he made the tape-to-tape pass to San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton(notes) that led to the game's first goal.

"I don't remember slashing his stick, but I don't know, I guess I weakened his stick," Eager told Yahoo! Sports. "I don't think I got near him, to be honest. It seems like he's just making an excuse for a tough play."

It sure sounded like it. Usually an athlete makes an excuse when he prefaces a comment by saying: "I don't like to make excuses, but … ." That's just what Luongo did. And in checking the replay, Eager is exactly right. He was nowhere near Luongo. He did not slash Luongo's stick.

Scott Nichol(notes) did. The replay shows that Nichol dumped in the puck and Luongo went behind his net to play it. As Luongo sent the puck around the boards with 1:45 left in the first period, Nichol – Eager's linemate – slashed Luongo's stick out of his hands. Luongo even raised both hands looking for a penalty as his stick lay on the ice.

Soon afterward, Luongo went behind his net to play the puck again. Instead of sending it around the boards from about the same spot, he tried to fire it straight to Henrik Sedin(notes) on the wing. Thornton, 6-foot-4 with a long reach, picked off the puck in the right circle and deposited it into the open net with 1:13 to go.

The point isn't that it was Nichol and not Eager who slashed Luongo's stick. Whodunnit? Who cares? Who knows how "kind of broken" Luongo's stick really was? As Eager said, "goalie sticks are a bit sturdier than a one-piece stick these days. I can't imagine a one-piece doing much damage to a goalie stick. … I think we could sit here all day and whack away at a goalie stick and wouldn't break it."

The details don't matter as much as the drama, which is so Luongo. The point is that Luongo keeps allowing these uh-oh goals, and despite the explanations and excuses, they keep eroding his reputation even when he wins.

Luongo did win Sunday, 3-2. He won the franchise's first conference final game since 1994.

"I don't know what more people want from him," said Cory Schneider(notes), Luongo's backup. "We're in the Western Conference finals. People talk about the past, but the fact is, in the past Vancouver was not the best team. This year we are where we are supposed to be, and people don't seem satisfied with it. It's like they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don't get it. He's a big reason we are here, and I thought he was great handling the puck this year."

That's the maddening duality with Luongo.

He posted a 2.11 goals-against average in the regular season, the best of his career. He posted a .928 save percentage, the second-best of his career. He was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. He broke through the second-round barrier in the playoffs for the first time. Among the improvements he made was indeed his puck-handling.

"A big part of us spending less time in our end is Roberto stopping the puck on rims, setting it up for our defense and sometimes himself beating the forecheck," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "We've got a tremendous amount of confidence in him, and he's going to keep doing what he's been doing all year."

But the bar is extremely high for Luongo – who made $10 million this season and has the NHL's top regular-season team in front of him – and Vigneault had so little confidence in him that he benched him for Game 6 of the Canucks' first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Even though Luongo won Game 7 of that series and then beat the Nashville Predators in the second round, he kept allowing softies. His Achilles' heel against Nashville was the shot behind his heels. The Predators repeatedly found ways to score from behind the goal line. No wonder the Sharks were shooting at sharp angles from the start Sunday.

No wonder people are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Luongo could sense it after his gift to Thornton, saying the play obviously looked bad and that he "could hear the fans were a little nervous." Maybe he should have left the puck for his defenseman. Maybe he should have sent it the other way.

"Sure it looks bad," Schneider said. "Thornton was taking the wall away. … [Luongo] was trying to bypass the corner, just go direct to the wing. It was the right play. It was the right read. Whether his stick broke, whatever, he just didn't get enough of it."

It doesn't help that Luongo's counterpart in this series, Antti Niemi(notes), is the anti-Luongo. Luongo has done just about everything but win the Stanley Cup; Niemi has done just about nothing but win it.

Niemi won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last season after entering the playoffs with only 42 regular-season games of NHL experience. Now he's back in the conference final again – 6-0 in playoff series. Even though he was no Vezina finalist in the regular season, even though he was pulled twice in the first round, even though he committed a turnover that led to a goal Sunday – just not as egregiously as Luongo did – he is considered a winner while Luongo is not.

Vigneault had to be careful Monday when asked about Niemi and whether his most important quality is that he's a "winner." Vigneault called Niemi a "real good goaltender who hasn't lost," as if separating direct cause and effect. After all, his own guy is a Vezina finalist who hasn't won the Cup yet. If Niemi is a "winner," what does that make Luongo?

Schneider said Luongo is desperate for a new label. "It's almost like he's kind of in screw-you mode," Schneider said. "He's sick of hearing it, and he's pretty determined to prove that he's a winner and he's the great goalie that he is."

But it might not be enough for Luongo even if he wins the Cup, not if he wins it like this. It wasn't enough for Luongo to win the gold medal for Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It wasn't enough for Chris Osgood(notes) to win two Cups as a starter – and go to Game 7 of another final – with the Detroit Red Wings.

In Monday's version of the Vancouver Province, columnist Tony Gallagher loosely compared Luongo to Osgood, who is remembered for fanning on center-ice shots in the 1998 playoffs even though the Wings won the Cup that year, saying Luongo "has given away just as many goals in this run." The same day, Schneider compared Niemi to Osgood, saying, "He just wins, and that's what you want sometimes. A guy like Chris Osgood, you can't really explain it, but he's got Cup rings to prove it and 400 wins."

Winning is one thing. But being a winner is in the eye of the beholder, and to this point, it doesn't look good for Luongo.

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