Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Game 7: A referendum on Luongo

Four minutes and 14 seconds. That’s all it took for the Stanley Cup dream to evaporate for the Vancouver Canucks, at least for a fortnight. Right in the middle of it was Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who allowed three goals on eight shots in just eight minutes of work, his Veznia form nowhere to be found on what was supposed to be Vancouver’s poster night. It continued an alarming trend of poor performances at TD Garden, where Luongo now has allowed 15 goals on 66 shots for an abysmal save percentage of 0.772 and a Goals Against Average of 8.05.

What makes the meltdown in Boston on Monday more troubling was that it came after a shutout in Game 5, which should have been a sign he was going back into form. Yes, Games 3 and 4 were horrible, but you could see it as an aberration, because even the best goaltenders have their moments. However, you expected him to rebound and regain his form, where, at worst, he could have lost Game 6 but kept the Canucks in the game. His meltdown suggests that at the most important position, Vancouver simply cannot have confidence.

This is why he has to win Game 7 or else he’ll have played his last game as a Canuck.

Yes, I said it- if Luongo loses, there’s no justification for keeping him in Vancouver. There’s no middle ground here- no “he stopped 70 of 71 shots in a heartbreaking quadruple overtime loss.” No, a loss is a loss- he has to win, or else he’s out.

The reasoning is very simple- when the Canucks need him most, Luongo has choked. Badly. Not just in this playoff- in each of his previous four seasons with the Canucks, when Luongo needs to be at his best, he has been at his worst, and a fifth straight season of misery would be proof enough that he just can’t be the goaltender Vancouver can rely on for postseason success.

Luongo’s problems began in 2007, when the Canucks drew the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. While his play wasn’t as bad as it would be in later years, Luongo still found a way to struggle against Anaheim, posting considerably lower save percentages and GAA at home against the Ducks (.889, 2.99 GAA) than on the road (.947, 1.93). Not surprisingly Vancouver lost both games at home against the Ducks, including Game 4 where the Canucks blew a 2-0 lead in the game en route to a loss in overtime, putting Vancouver in a 1-3 hole that they couldn’t recover from. A year later, Luongo would win just once in his final eight starts to send Vancouver spiraling out of the playoffs altogether.

The problems picked up steam once Vancouver got matched up with its nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks, in 2009 and 2010. The story is oft-repeated: after successful first round series, Luongo followed it up with a dramatically lower level of play against Chicago. In 2009, Luongo’s GAA was almost two and a half goals higher (3.51 vs. 1.15) against Chicago than it was against his first round opponent, the St. Louis Blues; with that series highlighted by the Game 6 collapse where Luongo failed to maintain two late Canucks leads in allowing seven goals on 28 shots (0.750 save percentage) throughout the game. In 2010, the Blackhawks just shelled Luongo all series long, especially at home where Luongo couldn’t buy a win or a save, where he posted a .845 save percentage and a 5.38 GAA in all three Vancouver losses.

Now, the Canucks have this, where it’s Boston’s turn to bombard Luongo. It’s getting to be a familiar sense of “déjà-vu” all over again for Vancouver, and this time it’s just one heartache too many. No team can expect to win when their goaltender provides numbers like that, so Luongo shouldn’t get a free pass from the Canucks- especially when his poor performances have come so consistently.

Yes, you could say that this season is different because Luongo has at least led the Canucks to the Cup Final, two rounds better than he’d done previously. Normally, I’d be inclined to agree, but this time I can’t. This isn’t a Vancouver team that’s “in the pack” that Luongo navigated through the woods to this point, this is a Vancouver team that overwhelmingly won the President’s Trophy and looked like world beaters throughout the season. If Vancouver loses Game 7, it wouldn’t be a series that the Canucks “could have won but didn’t”- this was a series they were “supposed to win”, the kind of win where you don’t question “if” it’ll come, just “when”. Just for Luongo to lose under those circumstances would be inexcusable, let alone have the worst games of your career.

Besides, how many more times does Luongo have to play poorly in the clutch before people start realizing he’s the problem?

All of this will be moot if Luongo leads the Canucks to Stanley Cup glory on Wednesday night. Then, we can assume that he really has chased the demons and become the big-money goaltender he’s been positioned to be. If he loses, it’ll be another choke in a long list of chokes, the pervasiveness of which being a clear indicator that he isn’t the playoff-level goaltender the Canucks truly need. If the pressure of Game 7 wasn’t bad enough for Luongo, he’ll have to contend with knowing his future hangs in the balance with this game.

It’s said that you make a name for yourself most in the playoffs. Now it’s time for Roberto Luongo to make it count.


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