Before this season, Roberto had the reputation of being a great regular season goalie who never came through when it counted most, in the playoffs.
This year, however, Bobby Loo, as he is known in Vancouver, is changing people’s minds about what he can do when games matter most.
Luongo broke into the NHL in 1999-2000 with the New York Islanders and then spent the next five seasons with the Florida Panthers. He didn’t make his first playoff appearance until 2007, his first year with the Canucks. While his postseason statistics were never horrible, Luongo’s teams never advanced deep into the playoffs. For the past three seasons, the club and its star goalie never got past the second round. The past two seasons, they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
This year, however, Luongo is turning his past critics into believers. He has led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994 and was clearly the difference maker for his team in the series clinching game against San Jose. The Sharks outshot the Canucks in the Game 5 double overtime thriller 56-34 but Luongo made 54 saves, including 16 in overtime, to help keep his team in the game and eventually lead them to victory. For his efforts, Bobby Loo was named the game’s first star.
Vancouver Coach Alain Vigneault was quick to point to his goalie as one of the biggest reasons for his team’s victory over the Sharks. “I thought he [Luongo] was real good,” Vigneault said. “Tonight without a doubt, they [the Sharks] played a real strong game, probably their best of these playoffs. We had a couple of breakdowns that he was able to keep us in the game…He was, in my mind, the difference tonight.”
But Vigneault also realized that Luongo’s contributions go well beyond one game. “He’s played a tremendous amount of really good games for this organization since I’ve been here and since he’s been here,” Vigneault added. “We’ve both been here five years. Obviously, tonight was a bigger stage. It was the first time we were in this type of opportunity and he played phenomenal.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Luongo in this year’s playoffs. He struggled in Games 4 and 5 against the Blackhawks in the opening round, being pulled in both games as Chicago mounted a comeback from a 3-0 series deficit. Vigneault benched Luongo for Game 6 in Chicago and started backup Cory Schneider. But Schneider was injured and Luongo finished the game, only to allow the game winner to Ben Smith in overtime to force a seventh and deciding game.
Game 7 against Chicago was a turning point for Luongo. If he lost, his reputation as a playoff choker would be cemented. His critics would have had a field day about his inability to come through in the clutch and the Canucks organization may have lost confidence in him. But Luongo came through. He had a shutout going until giving up a goal in the final two minutes by Jonathan Toews which tied the game at 1-1 and forced overtime.
In the extra session, Luongo kept his cool and kept the Blackhawks off the board until Alexandre Burrows scored the game winner at the 5:22 mark of the extra session. Luongo made 31 saves in the game and was named the game’s second star.
The big win in the clincher against Chicago gave Luongo confidence and he picked up his game in the following series against Nashville and then again against San Jose. Thus far, this overall playoff statistics include a 12-6 record, a 2.29 GAA and a save percentage of .922.
“I think I’ve been feeling pretty good the last couple series,” Luongo explained after the clincher against the Sharks. “The guys I think play really well defensively. Even though they have a lot of shots, we did a good job of neutralizing some secondary chances and stuff in the slot. When guys do that, it makes my job a lot easier. It’s easier for me to play the shooter, not have to worry about other things. If we can keep doing that in the next round, I like our chances.”
Because he worked so hard for so long to get here, Luongo definitely appreciates what getting to the Stanley Cup Finals means. “We work all our lives for this, not only this season,” Luongo said. “Growing up as a kid, this is where you want to be. There’s a lot of guys in the locker room that haven’t had a chance to be where we are right now, including myself…I’m just real excited now. I mean, I worked my whole life to be in this situation right now. It’s a great feeling.”
Despite the feeling of accomplishment that comes with reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, Luongo knows he has one more important step to take. The Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup in their 40 year history and no Canadian team has won it since Patrick Roy led the Montreal Canadiens to their last championship back in 1993.
“Obviously we have the biggest step of all coming ahead of us,” Luongo said. “But right now, I think we’re having the time of our lives and we’re enjoying every step of the way.”